Mary Jane Patterson
Mary Jane Patterson was the first African-American woman to earn a bachelor's degree. (Courtesy photo)

In 2014, D.C. public schools announced that eight new principals had graduated from a fellowship program the school system designed to create an internal pipeline for leaders.

The principals became the first graduates of the Mary Jane Patterson Fellowship, which provides 18 months of training and mentoring for promising D.C. schools employees who want to become principals.

Under the program, fellows work with leadership coaches and professors from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and serve as resident principals for a year in two different schools, working alongside high-performing mentor principals.

The fellowship was named for Patterson, an individual who’s considered to be the first African-American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Patterson, the daughter of fugitive slaves, was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1840, believed to be the oldest of seven children to Henry Irving and Emeline Eliza Patterson.

In 1852, her family left Raleigh and moved to Oberlin in hopes that the children would be able to get a college education, based on information from

Growing up, Patterson’s 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.

Earlier, 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 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 the four years leading to her graduation in 1862.

Patterson became the nation’s first African-American woman to receive a bachelor’s degree — her brother, John, and her sisters Emma and Chanie Ann, all would graduate from Oberlin and go on to pursue teaching careers, notes.

After graduation, Patterson taught at the Institute for Colored Youths in Philadelphia, then accepted a teaching position in 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 mentor many African-American women, working at the school until her death on Sept. 24, 1894.

“We live in a time where black history is further being embedded in American history,” said Devin T. Robinson X, an actor and activist known as “Egypt.” “African-Americans are helping America realize how powerful the reality of an American dream can be.

“African-Americans represent proof that if you overcome obstacles and continue to chase your vision, you will obtain your goal, your dream,” Robinson said. “This is why Mary Jane Patterson must be celebrated. She’s the realization of defeating the odds and winning. Fighting an uphill battle but only having faith that you can be victorious and knowledge that you’re fit for the victory. That’s the story of so many Americans.

“Many face horrible hurdles to complicated or simple success and they aren’t always equipped with socioeconomic privilege to succeed. They only have the essentials of intelligence, faith and will,” Robinson said. “Celebrating Patterson in Black History Month gives acknowledgement to the American in African-American and builds the bridge to being equal in humanity so many of our ancestors fought to cross.”

Stacy M. Brown is a senior writer for The Washington Informer and the senior national correspondent for the Black Press of America. Stacy has more than 25 years of journalism experience and has authored...

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