Black History Month
Mary Jane Patterson (1840–1894)
Mary Jane Patterson is largely recognized as the first black woman in the United States to graduate from an established four-year college.
Mary Jane Patterson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1840. She is believed to be the oldest of seven children, and that her parents, Henry Irving and Emeline Eliza Patterson, were fugitive slaves.
In 1835, Oberlin College admitted its first black student and two years later became the country’s first coed institution of higher education. It was also the first college in the country to grant undergraduate degrees to women. These changes paved the way for Mary Jane Patterson, who studied for a year in the college’s Preparatory Department.
Patterson graduated with highest honors in 1862. Each of the 28 graduates, including Patterson and a black male graduate, addressed the audience. Patterson’s speech was entitled “The Hero of Italy,” referring to Giuseppe Garibaldi, a contemporary Italian general and patriot. Patterson’s oldest brother John graduated from Oberlin in 1867, and her sisters Emma and Chanie graduated from the ladies’ course. All four siblings became teachers.
Patterson was also a humanitarian and devoted time and money to many organizations.
She, Josephine Beall Bruce, Anna Julia Cooper, Charlotte Forten and Mary Church Terrell, founded the Colored Women’s League of Washington, DC in 1894, a predecessor of the National Association of Colored Women. The League focused on training kindergarten teachers and providing industrial and homemaking skills for working-class women.