Posted on 08/10/2008

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Preparatory High School
Mary Jane Patterson
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Mary Jane Patterson

Mary Jane Patterson
Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, Patterson was the oldest of former slaves, Henry and Emeline Patterson's seven children. In 1856, she and her family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where they joined a growing community of free Black families who worked to send their children to college. Her father worked as a master mason, and for many years the family boarded large numbers of Black students in their home. In 1862, she graduated from Oberlin College, becoming the first Black woman to receive a B. A. degree from an established American college. Eventually, four Patterson children graduated from Oberlin College, all became teachers.

Mary Jane Patterson's first known teaching appointment was in 1865, when she became an assistant to Fanny Jackson in the Female Department of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. In 1869, Patterson accepted a teaching position in Washington, D. C., at the newly organized Preparatory High School for Colored Youth later known as Dunbar High School. She served as the school's first Black principal, from 1871 to 1874. During her administration, the name "Preparatory High School" was dropped, high school commencements were initiated, and a teacher-training department was added.

Patterson's commitment to thoroughness as well as her personality helped her establish the school's strong intellectual standards. Patterson also devoted time and money to other Black institutions in Washington, D. C., especially to industrial schools for young Black women, as well as to the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People.

Patterson died in Washington, D. C., September 24, 1894, at the age of fifty-four. Her pioneering educational attainments and her achievements as a leading Black educator influenced generations of Black students.

A History of Oberlin College From Its Foundation Through the Civil War by Robert Samuel Fletcher:

Photograph from the collection of Mrs. Florence P. Clark, Washington, D.C