Women You Missed in History Class: Mary Jane Patterson

Mary Jane Patterson (1840-1894)

On 15th Street in Washington, DC’s Logan Circle neighborhood, there is a brick house that’s marked as a historic landmark.  It looks just like all the other houses on the street, and I probably passed it several times without realizing its significance.  That house was the home of Mary Jane Patterson, a trailblazing black educator.  Patterson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina on September 12, 1840.  Records are unclear about whether her parents were freed slaves or fugitive slaves, but either way, Patterson was born into slavery.  In 1852, her family left Raleigh for Oberlin, Ohio, in the hopes that the Patterson children would have more opportunities there.  Oberlin had a large black community of former slaves, and the Pattersons were able to build a life there.  Patterson’s father was a skilled mason who was able to comfortably support his family.

In the 1850s, Oberlin College was among the most progressive educational institutions in the nation: It was a coed institution which admitted black students.  Because of these progressive policies, Mary Jane Patterson was able to enroll in Oberlin’s preparatory program in 1857.  After her first year, she chose to enter Oberlin’s “gentleman’s course,” a four-year liberal arts program that granted bachelor’s degrees.  A few black women had graduated from Oberlin before Patterson, but they had completed the two-year “ladies’ course.”  Patterson studied Greek, Latin, and mathematics, and in 1862, she graduated from Oberlin College with highest honors, making her the first African American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree.

After her graduation from Oberlin, Patterson taught in southern Ohio before accepting a teaching position at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  In 1869, she moved to Washington, DC to teach at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, the first public high school in the nation’s capital, and the first public high school for African American students.  Two years later, she became its principal, making her the first black school principal in Washington, DC.  After one year, she was demoted to assistant principal to make room for Richard T. Greener, the first African American to graduate from Harvard University.  When Greener stepped down as principal in 1873, Patterson became principal again, and under her leadership, the school became one of the most prestigious institutes for African American secondary education.

Patterson lived in that brick house on 15th Street with her sisters, Emma and Chanie, for most of her adult life.  None of the Patterson sisters ever married or had children, but they all devoted their lives to teaching and mentoring black youth and black women in the city.  Mary Jane Patterson died in her home on September 24, 1894 at the age of 54.  Her obituary noted that “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.”


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