First African-American woman to earn a bachelor’s degree

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How the Daughter of a Slave Became the First African-American Woman to Earn a Bachelor’s Degree. reports quoting TIME.

In 1862, a young woman stood at a podium at Oberlin College and gave a graduation address, just like every other member of her graduating class. But, in some respects, Mary Jane Patterson was not like her fellow students. She was both African-American and a woman — and as she addressed the audience on the subject of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s revolutionary career in Italy, she was on the verge of becoming the first black woman in the United States known to have earned a bachelor’s degree.

It’s hard to track Patterson’s early life. Historians do know that she was the daughter of a slave, but it’s unclear if her father, a master mason, escaped slavery or was freed by his master. In any case, the Patterson family ended up in Oberlin, Ohio. At the time, Oberlin was a haven for African-Americans. Home to a large black population, it was known as an abolitionist town and one that regularly protected fugitive slaves. It was also home to Oberlin College, which had admitted African-American students since 1835.

Unlike many colleges, Oberlin admitted not only African-Americans, but also women. Black students had graduated from the school, but without a four-year collegiate bachelor’s degree. Patterson changed that. And, though Oberlin offered a two-year course for women, she insisted on taking the “gentleman’s course” of study.
As one future student, Fanny Jackson, recalled, the course was not forbidden to women, but not recommended, either. “They did not advise it,” she wrote. “There was plenty of Latin and Greek in it, and as much mathematics as one could shoulder.” At the time, women were not expected to immerse themselves in classical languages, mathematics or science, but Patterson bucked the trend and took her place next to a class of white males.

She held her own. When she graduated in 1862, it was with high honors. Now, she decided to challenge herself not as a student, but as an educator. After teaching in Ohio for a year, she moved to Virginia. In a letter of recommendation, her principal at Oberlin recommended her as “a superior scholar, a good singer, a faithful Christian, and a genteel lady.”

2017.05.23 / 20:47
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