Mary Jane Patterson: Life and Respectability Politics


Clipping of the obituary of Mary Jane Patterson from the Washington D.C. Evening Star newspaper, 1894.

This Evening Star (DC) newspaper clipping from the Oberlin College Archives contains Mary Jane Patterson’s obituary [i]. It outlines Patterson’s life, starting with her birth into slavery on September 12, 1840 in Raleigh, North Carolina and ending with her death in Washington, DC, where she was still teaching at Dunbar High School in 1894. The Evening Star notes Patterson’s most well-known achievement of becoming the first African descended female in the United States to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree. The Evening Star also describes her long career as a teacher and administrator at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth (now the Cheyney University of Pennsylvania) and Dunbar High School where she became the first black principal of a high school in Washington D.C. 

Reading between the lines, respectability politics affected many aspects of Patterson’s life experience. Respectability politics, a term coined by historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her 1994 book Righteous Discontent, refers to the practice of marginalized groups distancing themselves from stereotypes about their community by conforming to hegemonic norms, such as customary style of dress, speech, and etiquette [ii]. Patterson’s experience offers an illuminating window into the role of respectability politics in the lives of educated 19th century black women. 

Mary Jane Patterson was the eldest child of Henry Irving Patterson and Emeline Eliza (Taylor) Patterson and had between 7 and 10 siblings. After escaping slavery in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1852, the Patterson family traveled north, eventually settling in Oberlin, Ohio [iii]. At the time, Oberlin was a popular location for people of color because of its large abolitionist community and racially integrated, coeducational college. The Patterson family had a close relationship with Oberlin College, boarding large numbers of black college students in their home. The extended Patterson family also opened a local grocery store called “Patterson’s Corner” which served the local community [iv]. Four of the Patterson children–one son and three daughters, including Mary Jane–eventually studied at Oberlin. All of them became teachers [v]

Although other women of color had graduated previously prior to Patterson’s graduation, they graduated from the Literary Course, which carried no degree [vi]. Patterson differentiated herself from her predecessors by insisting on taking the Gentlemen’s Course, which consisted of a rigorous study of Latin, Greek, and mathematics [vii]. Emma Brown, who was a student at Oberlin at the same time as Patterson, wrote of Oberlin on May 27, 1860, that: 

“There are 200 lady students. Quite a number…. There are very few colored students - that is comparatively speaking. There is one colored girl [Mary Jane Patterson] taking a Classical [Gentlemen’s] Course. I have been told that she is a pretty good scholar” [viii]

After graduating from Oberlin, Patterson devoted herself to education. By 1863, Patterson was teaching in Chillicothe, Ohio. On September 21, 1864 she applied for a position in Norfolk, Virginia at a school for black children. On October 7, 1864, E.H. Fairchild, principal of Oberlin’s preparatory school, wrote a letter of recommendation for Patterson. It concerned Patterson’s application for a position as a “teacher among freedmen” in Norfolk, Virginia at a school for black children [ix]. He described Patterson as 

“a light quadroon, a graduate of... [Oberlin] college, a superior scholar, a good singer, a faithful Christian, and a genteel lady… She had experience and success in teaching and is worthy of the highest [salary]… you pay to ladies.” [x]

Though the letter was complimentary for its time, it reflected the dominant racial and gender prejudices of its day. For one, “light quadroon” is a dated term used to describe individuals imagined to be one-quarter African by descent [xi]. It is reasonable to infer that Fairchild wrote about her light skin tone to imply that, despite her African descendance, Patterson was a refined and cultivated woman and thus a good person to hire. Given the prevalence of colorism, a practice of discrimination by which those of lighter skin are treated more favorably than those with darker skin, Patterson’s light skin tone undoubtedly advantaged her in comparison to other women of color at this time. 

Fairchild also comments on Patteron’s respectability, describing her as a “good singer, a faithful Christian, and a genteel lady” [xii]. By commenting on Patterson’s refined qualities in music, faith, and manners, along with her light skin tone, Fairchild appears to be trying to differentiate her from her darker skinned peers. This would have been important at the time, when “respectability politics” governed the fate of many people of color. An adherence to respectability politics, evident in Fairchild’s description, may have advantaged her in the white-dominated college setting. 


Photograph of Mary Jane Patterson from the possession of Mrs. Florence P. Clark now in the Oberlin College archives, 1860s.

Adherence to respectability politics was also apparent in what Patterson wore during her early life. This photograph from the Oberlin College Archives depicts young Mary Jane Patterson, likely a student at Oberlin or a recent graduate [xiii]

In What a Woman Ought to Be, Stephanie Shaw writes about how 19th century black families and schools stressed proper attire for children and students. Oftentimes “school officials were determined to make certain that their students dressed sensibly and tastefully” [xiv]. This meant dressing in professional, yet plain, clothing. Such attire communicated dignity, while fighting stereotypes of “less cultured” black workers wearing “unprofessional” or flamboyant clothing that reinforced Jim Crow-style caricatures. In the town of Oberlin, which had a large black community, and at Oberlin College, families and college administrators stressed similar dress codes.

“[I]n the minds of teachers and administrators (and parents too) the actual appearance that… women made could help or hurt them in their efforts to establish themselves as community leaders and to address large community problems. The future professionals could never expect to convey the values they wanted the larger population to adopt if they did not ‘look the part’ themselves” [xv]

In requiring dress codes, administrators hoped to defy stereotypes that white people often held. In the most serious situations, “‘tasteful’ appearance, ‘dignified’ carriage, and ‘cultured’ bearing could save a young, black, female professional from lynching [xvi]. More commonly, respectable dress spared young professionals from routine insults. Equally important, plain yet dignified dress “help[ed] mask the sometimes great economic class [disparity] between them [young professionals] and their clients” [xvii]

At Oberlin and beyond, adherence to respectable dress both benefited the individual and uplifted the greater black community. Patterson’s garb, plain and resembling that which mid-19th century white, middle-class women wore, communicated dignity and cultivation. By dressing in such a way, Patterson distanced herself from the disrespected aspects of her community, rooted in racism, allowing Patterson greater opportunity for success working as a young professional.


Photograph of Mary Jane Patterson's former residence in Washington D.C. (center building), 2010. Currently located at 1530–1534 15th Street, N.W., in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Despite Patterson’s refined appearance and Fairchild’s recommendation letter, Patterson was not hired for the position in Norfolk. Nevertheless, in 1865 Patterson was recruited to work at Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth, the first high school for African Americans in the country. There she served as an assistant to Fanny Jackson Coppin, then the principal of the Ladies Department and a fellow woman of color to graduate from Oberlin (1865). The members of the administration at the institute... 

“were impressed by the ability of Miss Jackson and her assistant, Mary Jane Patterson... to give ‘thoroughness and perfect understanding’ to every portion of the student recitations. The ladies’ experience in public speaking and elocution at Oberlin were reflected in their teaching” [xviii]

Patterson worked in Philadelphia for four years before moving to Washington D.C., where she lived with her two sisters, Emma and Chanie, and her brother John. In the 1880s, the four children moved to 1532 Fifteenth Street Northwest and took in their parents who were having financial troubles [xix]

From 1869 to 1871 Patterson taught at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (which became known as Dunbar High School in 1916). From 1871 to 1872, Patterson served as the school’s principal. This made her the first recorded black high school principal in Washington D.C. In 1873, however, Patterson was demoted to serve as assistant principal under Richard Theodore Greener, the first black Harvard University graduate [xx]. Patterson was reappointed to serve as principal from 1873 until 1884. 

By 1884, the school’s student population had greatly increased. Given the increase, the school deemed it “advisable to place a male in charge” and Patterson was again demoted [xxi]. This time she was replaced by F.L. Cardozo, Sr. as principal of the school [xxii]

Patterson’s two demotions might also reflect the influence of respectability politics within the greater black community. In this case, conforming with the hegemonic values of the time, positions of leadership and responsibility were reserved for men. Therefore, the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth legitimized itself as it grew by appointing men to top leadership positions. 

Under Patterson’s administration, the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth thrived. Not only did the school grow from less than 50 to 172 students, it also dropped the name "Preparatory High School" (becoming known as the M Street School in 1891), initiated high school commencements, and added a teacher-training department [xxiii]. Hallie Quinn Brown, notable activist, writer, and former slave, wrote that “Miss Patterson had in the school-room a vivacity of manner and sympathetic interest that gave her a strong influence over the youth with whom she came in contact and many successful men and women of today remember with gratitude her influence on their lives” [xxiv]

Mary Church Terrell, another Oberlin alumna, activist-intellectual, and first President of the highly regarded National Association of Colored Women (NACW) wrote in the July 1917 Journal of Negro History that it “was easy to imagine what an impetus and an inspiration [Patterson was]... at the head of a new school established for the youth of a race for which high standards and lofty ideals had to be set” [xxv]. Through citing Patterson as an inspiration for setting “high standards” and “lofty ideals,” Terrell, famous for her support of respectability politics and “dignified agitation,” suggests that Patterson’s work at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth itself was a form of “respectable” racial advocacy [xxvi]

Patterson continued to teach at the school until her death at her home in Washington D.C. on September 24, 1894 at the age of 54 [xxvii]. Throughout her life, Patterson was an active humanitarian involved in various civic projects, especially in Washington, DC. In her obituary in the Evening Star, Patterson was noted as having “co-operated heartily in sustaining the Home for the Aged and Infirm Colored People in this city, and other Kindred organizations” [xxviii]

Additionally, Patterson was a founding member of the Colored Women's League of Washington D.C. (CWL) in June 1982 [xxix]. With many members of middle and high status, the CWL’s primary focuses were the eventual creation of a national union of black women and improving the conditions of black children, women, and the urban poor in Washington, D.C. 

In What a Woman Ought to Be, Stephanie Shaw writes that along with the socialization of middle and high status black women to help others in their community, these women also sought to uplift their less fortunate peers for another reason. 

“[Professional black women] understood that white Americans rarely distinguished between the black middle classes (people like themselves) and lower classes. There was no doubt in [professional black women’s]... minds that for them to be seen individually as they wished to be seen and to have the privileges they wanted for themselves, the economic and social conditions of the [African American] group [as a whole] had to be changed” [xxx]

Thus, organizations of high class women such as the CWL often worked to uplift the lower classes. Specifically, along with advocacy to uplift the black community generally, the CWL focused on kindergarten teacher training and classes for industrial schools.

Given her usage of respectability politics, it is not surprising that Patterson joined an organization that utilized respectability to uplift her community. Patterson’s obituary followed up by noting that she had “devoted much of her means and time to forming and sustaining an industrial school for girls of her race” [xxxi]. Such industrial schools were designed to teach practical skills to the black lower classes as a means of uplifting them. This industrial school may have been run through the CWL or possibly by Patterson individually. After Patterson’s death, the CWL merged with the Federation of Afro American Women to become the NACW. 

Mary Jane Patterson became a trailblazer for her community, paving the way for women of color after her. Nevertheless, respectability politics also worked against Patterson during her career at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth when the school twice demoted her on account of her gender. Respectability politics required adherence to hegemonic norms – norms that privileged male leadership and whiteness. Still, through Patterson’s commitment to educational excellence and rigor at Dunbar, she paved the way for other people of color, especially women, to follow in her footsteps. 


[i] Evening Star. Oberlin College Archives Alumni Files Box 790, Death of Miss Patterson One of the Well-Known Teachers in the Colored Schools, Washington DC, Summer or Fall 1894. 

[ii] Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, Righteous Discontent, The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880–1920, Harvard University Press, 1994. 

[iii] Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College — From its Foundation through the Civil War, Volume II, Oberlin, Ohio: Oberlin College, 1943. pp. 534. 

[iv] Evans, Stephanie, Black Women in Ivory Tower: 1850‑1954, University Press of Florida, 2007, pp. 24. 

[v] African American Registry. Mary Jane Patterson, Educator Born,

[vi] Letter to Lucy D. Slowe, Dean of Women at Howard University. Oberlin College Archives Alumni Files Box 790, June 12, 1933. 

[vii] Sowell, Thomas, Black Excellence -- the case of Dunbar High School, National Affairs, 1974. 

[viii] Sterling. Dorothy, ed. We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Norton. 1984. pp. 200 

[ix] Smith, Jessie Carney. "Mary Jane Patterson." Notable Black Women, Book 1. Gale Research 1992. Accessed 16 Sept. 2022. pp. 826. 

[x] Ibid. 

[xi] Woodson, Carter and Wesley, Charles, The Story of the Negro Retold. Wildside Press, 2008. pp. 44 

[xii] Smith, Jessie Carney. "Mary Jane Patterson." Notable Black Women, Book 1. Gale Research 1992. Accessed 16 Sept. 2022. pp. 826.

[xiii] Oberlin College Archives Alumni Files Box 790, Photograph of First American Colored Woman to Receive a Bachelor’s Degree, Mary Jane Patterson in the possession of Mrs. Florence P. Clark, Washington D.C. Undated.

[xiv] Shaw, Stephanie What a Woman Ought to Be, University of Chicago Press, 2010. pp. 154

[xv] Ibid. pp. 156-157

[xvi] Ibid. pp. 157

[xvii] Ibid. pp. 157

[xviii] Perkins, Linda M. "Quaker Beneficence and Black Control: The Institute for Colored Youth, 1852-1903," in New Perspectives on Black Educational History. Edited by V. P. Franklin and J. D. Anderson. Boston: G. K. Hall. 1978. pp. 25 

[xix] Smith, Jessie Carney. "Mary Jane Patterson." Notable Black Women, Book 1. Gale Research 1992. Accessed 16 Sept. 2022. pp. 827

[xx] Journal of Negro History, July 1917, pp. 252-66. 

[xxi] Evening Star. Oberlin College Archives Alumni Files Box 790, Death of Miss Patterson One of the Well-Known Teachers in the Colored Schools, Washington DC, Summer or Fall 1894. 

[xxii] Ibid. 

[xxiii] Ibid

[xxiv] Brown, Hallie Quinn. Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction. Xenia, Ohio: Aldine Pub. Co., 1926. 

[xxv] Journal of Negro History, July 1917, pp. 252-66. 

[xxvi] Cooper, Brittney. Beyond Respectability, The Intellectual Thought of Race Women, University Press Scholarship Online, 2018. pp. 61 

[xxvii] Evening Star. Oberlin College Archives Alumni Files Box 790, Death of Miss Patterson One of the Well-Known Teachers in the Colored Schools, Washington DC, Summer or Fall 1894. 

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Fourth Annual Report of Colored Woman’s League of Washington D.C., Library of Congress, 1897, pp. 14. 

[xxx] Shaw, Stephanie What a Woman Ought to Be, University of Chicago Press, 2010. pp. 123

[xxxi] Evening Star. Oberlin College Archives Alumni Files Box 790, Death of Miss Patterson One of the Well-Known Teachers in the Colored Schools, Washington DC, Summer or Fall 1894. 

Life and Respectability Politics