Mary Jane Patterson is considered the first African American to received a Bachelor’s of Arts degree at a time when it was rare for any women to complete four year degrees. Her life was one of service to others with her teaching and we are glad to shine a light on this lesser known hero.
The Early Life of Mary Jane Patterson
In 1840, Mary Jane Patterson was born into slavery in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her birthday is celebrated on 12 September, although the exact date is not confirmed. Her father, Henry Irving Patterson, worked as a bricklayer, plasterer, and skilled mason. He and her mother, Emmeline Eliza (Taylor) Patterson, moved their family to Oberlin, Ohio in the 1950s sometime before 1956.
Mary Jane was the oldest of a minimum of 7 siblings, although the exact number is uncertain. Three of these siblings also received degrees from Oberlin College after Patterson did. While in Oberlin, the family boarded African American students in their home on property that Henry Patterson acquired after he was either freed or escaped slavery around 1852.
About Oberlin College as a Co-Ed institution for all.
Many freed African Americans moved to Oberlin, hoping their children would be able to get a college education. In 1835, Oberlin admitted the first African American student, and in 1837 it became the country’s first Co-ed College. Oberlin College is the oldest Liberal Arts school and Music Conservatory in the United States. It is also the 2nd oldest continually co-educational institution in the world.
- The college was named after Jean-Frédéric Oberlin, an Alsatian minister and philanthropist
- Oberlin was preceded by the Oneida Institute of Science and Industry, in Oneida County, New York, which closed in 1843. Much of Oberlin’s anti-slavery/abolitionist ideas were directly influenced by Oneida.
Mary Patterson’s Education was unique for a black woman at the time, even at Oberlin.
In 1857, Mary Jane Patterson started her college education at Oberlin College. She was 17 and did a one year preparatory course. She then enrolled in a four-year classical studies program known as a “Gentlemen’s Course” that led to her achievement of a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.). This was uncommon, as most women went for a 2 year literary degree instead. Patterson, however, chose the four year degree which included learning Latin, Greek, and mathematics.
Patterson graduated in 1862 with highest honors and her Bachelor’s of Arts. She is widely considered the first African American woman to graduate with a B.A. Before her, an African American woman named Grace A. Mapps may have graduated from New York Central College at McGrawville in 1852, but it was a general four year program and not a Bachelor’s of Arts.
Mary Patterson is known most for her teaching career.
Her early positions as a teacher are somewhat unclear, but Patterson may have taught in Chillicothe, Ohio around 1863. If she did so, however, it was not for long. In 1864, she applied for a teaching position in Norfolk, VA and for an appointment from the American Missionary Association.
In his letter of recommendation, E. H. Fairchild, the principal of Oberlin’s preparatory school, described Patterson as:
“a light quadroon, a graduate of this college, a superior scholar, a good singer, a faithful Christian, and a genteel lady…She had experience and success in teaching and is worthy of the highest…you pay to ladies.”— E. H. Fairchild
It is unclear if she received offers of either position.
Mary Jane Patterson and the Institute for Colored Youth
She moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1865 where she taught at the Institute for Colored Youth for seven years. While there, she assisted classmate Fanny Jackson from Oberlin in the Female Department of the Institute. Later, she went to Washington, D.C. to teach at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, also known as the M street School. It was later renamed Dunbar High School.
This was the first prep school in Washington, D.C. for African Americans, and she taught here from 1869-1871. She became the principal in 1871, the first African American principal for the school. She was demoted to assistant principal under Richard Greener, the first African American Harvard graduate. However, in 1873 she was reappointed when he moved on. During her tenure the school grew from 50 students to 172 and officially became a High School. She added a department for training teachers, and began High School commencements.
In 1884, the school administrators decided that the school had grown to a size where they thought it would be better to have a man in charge, so she stepped down. Ms. Patterson continued to teach there until her death in her home on 24 September 1894.
Mary Patterson’s Legacy is in all those who followed after her.
Patterson’s success lay the groundwork for other African American female scholars, especially others who graduated from Oberlin like:
- Fanny Jackson Coppin – the first African American teacher at Oberlin and first African American woman to serve as a high school principal.
- Mary Church Terrell – another college graduate, fellow teacher, and member of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909) and the Colored Women’s League of Washington.
- Anna Julia Cooper – a scholar, the fourth African American woman to get a PhD, and an early African American feminist
Like Patterson, these women went on to be scholars and leaders of their communities.
Patterson earned her B.A. 20 years after the first White woman and 40 years after the first African American man. She participated in social reform activities with other women, including many college educated women and some fellow alumni from Oberlin College. Throughout her life, she strove to bring education to anyone who wanted it and to break down barriers for women and African Americans alike.
Explorer more Amazing African American women in our Black History Month Special Feature.