Mary Jane Patterson was a trailblazer in every sense of the word. She was born in 1840 in North Carolina. While it is uncertain if her father obtained his freedom or was an escapee, he relocated the family to Oberlin, Ohio, a town with a growing free Black population.
Patterson excelled as a student. Fulfilling her father’s dream of attending college, Patterson graduated from Oberlin College with the highest honors. She is widely considered only the second Black woman to graduate from an established four-year college in the United States with a bachelor’s degree.
She joined her older brother as graduates of the college—later, their younger sisters joined them. All became teachers. Mary became the family’s eduactivist—ensuring that other Black folks had the educational opportunities that she had, if not better.
Our involvement in the civil rights movement is what sent us into our involvement against apartheid.
Patterson taught in Ohio and applied to the American Missionary Association, but abruptly changed course and moved to Philadelphia where she assisted her Oberlin classmate, and fellow eduactivist and Black Educator Hall of Famer, Fanny Jackson Coppin, in the Female Department of the Institute for Colored Youth (formerly known as the African Institute and now known as Cheyney University). From there, she moved to Washington, D.C. to teach at Preparatory High School for Colored Youth that later became Dunbar High School.
Shortly thereafter, she became the principal. Inexplicably, Mary was demoted to make room for a heralded Black man who had graduated from Harvard. After he left the position a year later, Mary was asked to resume the principalship. Patterson’s accomplishments as principal included creating the commencement ceremony and installing a teacher prep program at the school.
Patterson was described by the legendary Mary Church Terrell:
She was a woman with a strong, forceful personality, and showed tremendous power for good in establishing high intellectual standards in the public schools. Thoroughness was one of Miss Patterson’s most striking characteristics as a teacher. She was a quick, alert, vivacious and indefatigable worker. During Miss Patterson’s administration, which lasted altogether twelve years, three important events occurred: the name Preparatory High School was dropped; in 1877, the first high school commencement was held; and the normal department was added with the principal of the high school as its head.
Her character is the sort that exuded excellence wherever she taught and educated. We must remember to keep high standards for all students, in love and with love. That’s how we can make a difference just like Ms. Patterson.
Mary Jane Patterson, a member of the Black Educator Hall of Fame.
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