June 30, 2022
Mary Jane Patterson

source: Oberlin College Credit: Oberlin College Archives

When she graduated from Oberlin College in 1862, educator Mary Jane Patterson is credited as being the first African American woman to acquire a bachelor's degree.

When she graduated from Oberlin College in 1862, educator Mary Jane Patterson is credited as being the first African American woman to acquire a bachelor’s degree. Lucy Stanton Day Sessions, an Oberlin alumna, had graduated twelve years before but was not in a programme that conferred legitimate bachelor’s degrees.

Patterson is thought to have been born into slavery in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1840, despite the fact that her early years are unknown. She and her family moved to Oberlin, Ohio in the mid-1850s when she was a small kid. She finished a year of preparatory studies at Oberlin College in 1857. She enrolled in Oberlin’s “gentlemen’s course,” a four-year classical studies programme that led to a Bachelor of Arts degree, rather than the school’s two-year programme for women.

Patterson then worked as a teacher in Chillicothe, Ohio, for the next year. She moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the age of 22 to teach at the Institute for Colored Youth for the following five years. Patterson moved to Washington, D.C. in 1869 to teach at the newly established Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (later M Street High School and now Paul Laurence Dunbar High School), the first public high school in the United States for African Americans and the first public high school in the District of Columbia.

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Patterson was named principal of the school two years later, in 1871, and served for a year before being promoted to assistant principal when Richard T. Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard University in Massachusetts, took over as principal. Patterson returned to her job as principal after Greener resigned after a year, and she remained there until her resignation in 1884. During her tenure, the school flourished and gained a reputation as a prominent secondary school.

Patterson is thought to have stayed on as a teacher at the school after her time as administrator. Patterson was active in women’s rights, helping to form the Colored Women’s League of Washington, D.C., in addition to her teaching job. On September 24, 1894, she died at the age of 54. Her house, 1532 15th Street NW, is on the historic walking tour of Washington, D.C.

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