Duchess History: Mary Jane Patterson: The First Black Woman to Earn Degree

by Joseph Omoniyi
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Mary Jane Patterson, born in Raleigh, North Carolina, etched her name in the annals of worlds academia and civil rights history. In 1862, Patterson achieved a milestone that reverberated through generations — becoming the first black woman to earn a college degree, a distinction bestowed upon her by Oberlin College. This remarkable achievement marked the beginning of a lifelong journey dedicated to education, equality, and empowerment.

Patterson’s early life was a tapestry woven with determination and aspiration. Moving to Oberlin, Ohio in 1856 with her family, she joined a thriving community of free Black families that recognized the power of education. Patterson’s father, a master mason, tirelessly supported this vision, often boarding numerous Black students in their home. This nurturing environment fueled Mary Jane’s passion for education, setting the stage for her pioneering journey.

The epochal year of 1862 witnessed Patterson’s graduation from Oberlin College, an accomplishment that transcended personal triumph. It was a beacon of hope, a testament to the capabilities and potential within the African-American community. Following her graduation, Patterson embarked on a career in education that further cemented her legacy.

In 1864, she sought a teaching position at a school for Black children in Norfolk, Virginia. A glowing recommendation from E.H. Fairchild, principal of Oberlin College’s preparatory department, illuminated her remarkable attributes — a scholar, a singer, a Christian, and a genteel lady. This endorsement set her on a path to influence education among freedmen, a mission she pursued passionately.

Subsequently, Patterson’s journey led her to the Female Department of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, where she worked alongside distinguished educator Fanny Jackson. In 1869, she accepted a teaching position at the nascent Preparatory High School for Colored Youth in Washington, D.C., later renowned as Dunbar High School. With dedication and foresight, she ascended to the position of the school’s first Black principal, an achievement that echoed with historical significance.

Under her guidance, the institution flourished. Patterson’s relentless pursuit of academic excellence was evident as she championed high standards and implemented crucial advancements. The school evolved, and so did the name — “Preparatory High School” was shed, high school commencements were introduced, and a teacher-training department was established. Patterson’s meticulous approach and unwavering dedication shaped the school into an epitome of educational advancement.

Beyond the classroom, Mary Jane Patterson epitomized the spirit of philanthropy, actively supporting Black institutions in Washington. She channeled her time and resources into industrial schools for young African-American women and the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People. Her influence extended far beyond the walls of educational institutions, impacting lives and fostering empowerment.

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