Patterson, Mary Jane (1840–1894)

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Patterson, Mary Jane (1840–1894)

African-American educator. Born in 1840 near Raleigh, North Carolina; died in 1894; second of five children of Henry Patterson (a mason and former slave) and Emeline Patterson; graduated from Oberlin College, 1862.

Taught in Philadelphia (1862–69); appointed to Washington, D.C., school system (1869); served as principal of Washington Colored High School (1871–72, 1873–84).

Mary Jane Patterson was born in pre-Civil War North Carolina in 1840, the daughter of Henry Patterson, an escaped slave, and Emeline Patterson . When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, virtually encouraging the kidnapping and selling of free blacks into slavery, the family moved north and settled in Oberlin, Ohio, where her father prospered as a mason. While her older brother also became a mason, Patterson and her three younger siblings attended Oberlin College, the first co-educational college in America and the first (in 1835) to admit African-Americans as students. There she and two of her sisters, Channie and Emma , studied to become teachers. When Patterson received her degree from Oberlin in 1862, she became the first African-American woman to graduate from college in the United States.

Patterson taught in Philadelphia until 1869, when she and her sister Channie were appointed to teach in the black school system in Washington, D.C., which was renowned for the excellence of the education it offered. (Their parents and their sister Emma later joined them in the city.) Two years after she arrived, Patterson was appointed principal of Washington Colored High School, the city's only high school for African-Americans and one of the premier schools for African-Americans in the country. She served one year as principal, after which she was replaced by Richard T. Greener, who was Harvard University's first black graduate and the father of Belle da Costa Greene . He stayed only one year, however, and in 1873 Patterson was reinstated as principal, a post she would hold for 11 more years.

The school flourished under her leadership. Because its enrollment grew, however, in 1884 the school board again decided to replace Patterson as principal with a man. Patterson remained at the school as a teacher for the rest of her life, never marrying and continuing to dedicate herself to educating the descendants of ex-slaves. Months before her death at the age of 54, Patterson was working with colleague Mary Church Terrell to incorporate the Colored Women's League of Washington, D.C., which later became the National Association of Colored Women.


Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Maria Sheler Edwards , M.A., Ypsilanti, Michigan

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Patterson, Mary Jane (1840–1894)

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