Mary Jane Patterson

Born into slavery, Mary Jane Patterson is largely recognized as the first black woman in the United States to graduate from an established four-year college.


Born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1840, Mary Jane Patterson became the first African-American woman to receive a college degree when she graduated from Oberlin College in 1862. The daughter of fugitive slaves, she went on to have an illustrious career as an educator and was known to be a mentor to many African Americans. 

Life & Legacy

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 1852, her family left Raleigh and moved to Oberlin, Ohio in 1856, in hopes that the children would be able to get a college education. Growing up, her father — a childhood friend of Andrew Johnson — supported the family through his work as a skilled mason. To help make ends meet, the family also boarded black students.

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. There were still only a few black students enrolled at the college during her four years leading to her graduation in 1862. By earning her B.A., Patterson became the nation’s first African-American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree. (Patterson’s brother, John, and her sisters Emma and Chanie Ann, all would graduate from Oberlin and go on to pursue teaching careers.)

After graduation, Mary Jane Patterson taught at the Institute for Colored Youths in Philadelphia, then accepted a teaching position in Washington D.C at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youths. In 1871, she became the first black principal of the newly-founded Preparatory High School for Negroes. Over the course of her career, she was known to be a mentor to many African-American women. She continued working at the school until her death on September, 24 1894.

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