Mary Jane Patterson was born on September 12, 1840 in Raleigh, North Carolina. The oldest of seven children, she moved to Oberlin, Ohio in 1856 with her family—who some believe were fugitive slaves.
While in Oberlin, Mary Jane’s father, Henry, worked as a master mason and her family often provided lodging for several Black students passing through the area.
After finishing her first year at Oberlin in 1857, Patterson transitioned into the school’s “gentlemen’s course,” a four-year program, instead of remaining in the two-year “lady’s course” that did not yield a degree. According to historian Robert Samuel Fletcher, Patterson graduated from Oberlin College in 1862, becoming the first African American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in the U.S., and possibly “’the first African Negro woman in the world’ to attain the distinction of receiving an A.B. degree.”
Mary Jane Patterson spent her life educating others. After teaching in the Female Department of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, she moved to Washington D.C. and taught at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, later known as Dunbar High School. The Preparatory High School for Colored Youth was the nation’s first public school for Black students and Patterson served as the school’s first Black principal, turning the school into one of the nation’s premiere institutions for Black students.
In addition to devoting her life to education, Patterson was a fierce advocate of women’s rights. She was an active member of the Colored Women’s League of Washington D.C., a women’s suffrage organization that fought against lynching, Jim Crow laws, and inequality.
Mary Jane Patterson died in her home on September 24, 1894, at the age of 54.