Peake, Mary Smith (1823-1862)
Mary Smith Peake (1823-1862)
African american educator
Beginnings. Mary S. Peake, born Mary Kelsey in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1823, was the daughter of an Englishman and a lightskinned, free black woman. At the age of six she was sent to Alexandria to live with her aunt, Mary Paine, in a house owned by abolitionist sympathizer Rollins Fowle. There she attended a “select colored school,” studying dressmaking along with reading, writing, and arithmetic, until growing sectional tensions and fear of slave unrest prompted local lawmakers to close all colored schools in the city. Peake was deeply religious, and upon her return to Norfolk at the age of sixteen she joined the First Baptist Church, then under the direction of antislavery pastor Rev. James A. Mitchell. In 1847 at the age of twenty-four, Peake moved to Hampton, Virginia, supporting herself by making clothes and clandestinely teaching black children and adults. In 1851 she married Thomas Peake, a former slave, and they lived together until Confederate troops burned the black section of town while retreating from a Union army attack in 1861.
Fortress Monroe. Almost immediately upon their seizure of Fortress Monroe, Virginia, Union army commanders found themselves hard-pressed to cope with the steady stream of “contraband” slaves from neighboring plantations who flocked to their lines expecting liberation. The American Missionary Association had been preparing for just such a contingency, and within days of the military victory it dispatched Rev. Lewis C. Lockwood to instruct the freedmen. Lockwood opened the first Sabbath school in early September, and when he mentioned to students his desire to open a full-time freedmen’s school, they suggested he contact Mary Peake, who was apparently well known in the area. Peake began classes on 17 September 1861 with “only about half a dozen” pupils, but within several days attendance had grown to between fifty and sixty students. When adults expressed an interest in schooling, Peake organized night classes for their benefit and continued as the primary teacher at Fortress Monroe until she contacted tuberculosis several months later. Shortly after Christmas 1861 Peake was forced to give up her teaching role and was confined to her bed until she died six weeks later, on 22 February 1862.
“Uplifting the Race.” Although her personal role in freedmen’s education was thus preempted, the very ground upon which Mary Peake taught at Fortress Monroe would later become home to the renowned Hampton Institute, and her own commitment to the education of her people would be emulated by other African Americans. In 1861, for example, Charlotte Forten, a freed black from a prominent Philadelphia abolitionist family, arrived in Beaufort, South Carolina, and spent the next two years teaching freedmen and women on Saint Helena Island. Forten’s classes aimed not only to provide children and adults with the elements of a rudimentary education but to instill among them a sense of racial pride. “Talked to the children a little while to-day about the noble Toussaint [L’Ouverture],” she noted in her diary. “They listened very attentively. It is well that they should know what one of their color could do for his race. I long to inspire them with courage and ambition, and high purpose.” The self-sacrifice and commitment of Mary Peake, Charlotte Forten, and hundreds of others went a long way toward overturning the traditional, racist assumptions that many white Americans shared about black racial inferiority. “Some say we have not the same faculties and feelings with white folks,” one of Peake’s students would protest, in remarks glowing with deep faith in the regenerative power of education. “What would the best soil produce without cultivation? We want to get wisdom. That is all we need. Let us get that, and we are made for time and eternity.”
Leon F. Litwack, Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery (New York: Random House, 1979).