Mary Jane Patterson was born of Emeline Eliza and Henry Irving Patterson in 1840. Her father was born enslaved and did not gain his freedom until after Mary Jane was born. Mary Jane Patterson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, but grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, which is where her father moved his family after being emancipated. She had ten siblings.
Oberlin, Ohio had a large population of former slaves and free-born African-Americans. Mary Jane Patterson’s father made his living as a bricklayer or mason and they often rented rooms with Black students who attended the racially mixed college in Oberlin.
Mary Jane Patterson began her educational pursuit by attending a preparatory program in Oberlin, Ohio and then studied for four years at Oberlin College where she received her B.A degree.
After graduating she was recommended to be a teaching assistant to Fanny Jackson at The Institute for Colored Youths in Philadelphia. She taught at the Institute for seven years, then went to teach at the first High School Preparatory Program for Black students in Washington. She taught there from 1869-1884. From 1871-1874, she held the title of Principle, which made her the first African-American to be Principle of the school, which would later be named Dunbar High School. During her time as Principle, she began a high school commencement program and a teacher training program.
She donated her time and funds to industrial schools for young Black women and the Center for aging and infirm African-Americans. Two of her siblings, Chanie and Emeline followed in her footsteps and graduated from Oberlin College and later taught in Washington, D.C.
Mary Jane Patterson became the first African-American woman to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree and paved the way for many future African-American academics. Her time and investment in education demonstrates the important position that education held with our ancestors. Patterson never married, but left a strong legacy. She died in Washington, D.C on September 24, 1894.
So, if you’re an African-American woman (or man) with a Bachelor of Arts degree, take pride in knowing that you come from a strong legacy.