How did February get here so fast? I finally packed my pink foil Christmas tree away a week ago and was reminded today at the grocery store that I need to buy or receive heart shaped chocolates to feel some sort of special. You know who is feeling special today? If you guessed someone who has zero experience running public education, contributed piles of money to Republican campaigns and whose name rhymes with Fretsy LeFloss then boy golly – you got it right!
But let’s be honest if you wanted to read about Fretsy LeFloss’s meteoric rise to Secretary of Education, you could read fake news sites or read her bio. Your call and we’ll wait for you to check those things out and we’ll be waiting for you. Let’s talk about some real educators, let’s go way back.
Mary Jane Patterson is a badass educator who was America’s first African American woman to graduate from a four-year university in 1862 and according to historians likely the first African American woman to earn a bachelors degree in the entire world, although that is not confirmed. The daughter of slaves, not many details are available about her youth, other than Mary’s family moved to Ohio with the hopes of getting their children educated. In addition to enrolling African Americans, Oberlin became the first co-ed university. There were two different programs: a program that consisted of two-year studies for women, and “gentleman” courses which led to a four-year degree. Mary chose the latter and took classes in Latin, Greek, and Mathematics.
Upon graduation, Mary taught in Ohio and years later moved to Washington D.C. and became the first African American Principal of the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth which is now known as the prestigious Dunbar High School. It was the first time an African American woman had become a principal in the entire city of D.C.
Mary resigned over ten years later after growing the enrollment from 50 to 172 students. At the time, the administrators of the school believed that the school was so big, a man was needed to be principal.
I know. You’re probably thinking…
Despite Mary Jane Patterson’s probable early retirement, her colleagues recognized her tireless work ethic and involvement in the school as exceptional.
She was a woman with a strong, forceful personality, and showed tremendous power for good in establishing high intellectual standards in the public schools. Thoroughness was one of Miss Patterson’s most striking characteristics as a teacher. She was a quick, alert, vivacious and indefatigable worker. During Miss Patterson’s administration, which lasted altogether twelve years, three important events occurred: the name “Preparatory High School” was dropped; in 1877, the first high school commencement was held; and the normal department was added with the principal of the high school as its head.
Notable Black American Women quoted a description of Patterson written by Mary Church Terrell, another Oberlin alumna, in the July 1917 Journal of Negro History.
We’ll have more posts celebrating the lives and achievements of African American women for Black History this month.