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Mary Jane Patterson Biography



Born into slavery, Mary Jane Patterson is thought to be the first black woman to graduate from an established four-year college in the United States. She spent her career creating new educational opportunities for nineteenth-century black Americans.

Born in 1840 in Raleigh, North Carolina, Mary Jane Patterson was the daughter of Henry Irving Patterson and Emmeline Eliza (Taylor) Patterson. The African American Registry celebrates her birthday as September 12, 1840. Mary Patterson was probably the oldest of at least seven siblings. Her father, a boyhood friend of future U.S. President Andrew Johnson, was a bricklayer and plasterer. About 1852 he either obtained his freedom or escaped slavery and moved his family out of North Carolina. By 1856 the family had settled in Oberlin, Ohio. Oberlin was home to a growing population of free black families, many of whom hoped to send their children to college. Henry Patterson worked as a skilled mason and the family boarded black students. Oberlin College had admitted its first black student in 1835 and became the nation's first coeducational institution of higher education in 1837.

In 1857 Mary Patterson entered a one-year preparatory course at Oberlin College. At that time most Oberlin women followed the two-year ladies' or literary course which led to a diploma; however after her preparatory year Patterson entered the four-year gentleman's course in classics that led to a traditional Bachelor of Arts degree. Patterson's studies included Latin, Greek, and mathematics.

At the time there were a few other black men and women at Oberlin. Patterson's black classmate, Emma Brown, wrote in a letter dated May 22, 1860: "There is considerable prejudice here which I did not at first perceive.…," as quoted by Dorothy Sterling in We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. Patterson graduated with a B.A. degree and highest honors in 1862. Each of the 28 graduates, including Patterson and a black male graduate, addressed the audience. Patterson's speech was entitled "The Hero of Italy," referring to Giuseppe Garibaldi, a contemporary Italian general and patriot.

Patterson's oldest brother John, born in 1844, graduated from Oberlin in 1867, and her sisters, Emma and Chanie Ann, graduated from Oberlin's ladies course. All four of the siblings became teachers. Although Patterson is usually credited as the first black American female to earn a bachelor's degree, a black woman named Grace A. Mapps was reported to have graduated from New York Central College at McGrawville in the 1850s.

By 1863 Patterson reportedly was teaching in Chillicothe, Ohio. Her tenure there was not long, according to an article on Patterson in Notable Black American Women, which quoted a 1864 letter of recommendation written by E. H. Fairchild, the principal of Oberlin's preparatory school. The letter, found in the American Missionary Association (AMA) manuscript collection, concerned Patterson's application for a missionary position as a "teacher among freedmen." Fairchild 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." However by the following year Patterson had moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, were she assisted her Oberlin classmate Fanny Jackson (Coppin) in the Female Department of the Institute for Colored Youth.

In 1869 Patterson moved to Washington, D.C., to teach at the newly-established one-year Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, which later became the prestigious Dunbar High School. Patterson lived at 1532 15th Street Northwest, with her sisters, Emma and Chanie, and her brother John. During the 1880s their parents joined them there. Her home is included in Washington's African American Heritage Trail.

In 1871 Patterson became principal of the school. Reportedly it was the first time that a black had been appointed principal of a Washington, D.C., high school. However after one year she was demoted to assistant principal under Richard T. Green, the first black graduate of Harvard University. When Green left after only one year, Patterson resumed the principal position. Among her achievements were the establishment of high school commencement at the school and the addition of a teacher-training program.

Patterson resigned as principal in 1884, having seen the school's enrollment increase from less than 50 students to 172. It was reported that administrators decided that such a large school required a male principal. Although a letter from Patterson in January of 1885 indicated that she was unemployed and experiencing financial difficulties, other reports indicate that she continued to teach at Preparatory High School until her death in 1894. Neither Patterson nor her two sisters ever married.

Notable Black American Women quoted a description of Patterson written by Mary Church Terrell, another Oberlin alumna, in the July 1917 Journal of Negro History. "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."

In addition to teaching and school administration, Patterson was active in various civic projects. Her obituary in the September 25, 1894, Washington Evening Star noted that "[Patterson] co-operated heartily in sustaining the Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored People in this city, and other Kindred organizations," and "devoted much of her means and time to forming and sustaining an industrial school for girls of her race." Patterson died at the age of 54, on September 24, 1894, at her home in Washington.

At a Glance …

Born Mary Jane Patterson on September 12(?), 1840, in Raleigh, NC; died on September 24, 1894, in Washington, D.C. Education: Oberlin College, BA, 1862.


Chillocothe, OH, teacher, 1863-64; Institute for Colored Youth, Female Department, Philadelphia, PA, teacher, 1865-69; Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (later Dunbar High School), Washington, DC, teacher, 1869-71, principal, 1871-72, 1873-84, teacher, 1885-94.



Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale Research, 1992.

Sterling, Dorothy, ed., We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century, Norton, 1984.


Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), September 25, 1894.

Journal of Negro History, July 1917, pp. 252-66.


"Mary Jane Patterson, a Natural Educator!" African American Registry, www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/1832/Mary_Jane_Patterson_a_natural_educator (July 9, 2005).

—Margaret Alic

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