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Mary S. Peake: A Hero in Education
By Nancy E. Sheppard

Peake imageWithout a doubt, one of the greatest heroes in American education is local-born Mary S. Peake. Her revolutionary drive to teach during a time in which it was illegal for her students to learn blazed a trail far ahead of the path she started.

Born in Norfolk in 1823, Mary was the daughter of an Englishman considered of "rank and culture,” and a freed woman described as "light-skinned.” When Mary was only six years old, her mother sent her to live in Alexandria (then considered within the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia) with her aunt, Mary Paine. For the next ten years, Mary attended a school specifically for a select group of freed blacks. There, she learned arithmetic, reading, writing, and dressmaking.

In 1839, Washington D.C. closed all of the schools dedicated to teaching African- American students. Without the ability to receive her education, Mary moved back to the Tidewater to live with her mother. In 1847, her mother married Thomas Walker and the family moved to Hampton.

During the day, Mary helped support her family through dressmaking. However, she also secretly educated the local freed and slave populations, including her own stepfather. Despite the dangers it might prove to Mary’s own freedom (as educating the freed black and slave population had been illegal in the Commonwealth of Virginia since 1831), she was absolutely driven and dedicated to providing others with the same educational opportunities she was afforded.

In 1851, she married freed slave and merchant marine, Thomas Peake. Together, they had one child: a daughter, Hattie, that they nicknamed "Daisy.”

On the evening of August 7, 1861, the Confederate army burned the City of Hampton to the ground in an ill-planned attempt to prevent General Benjamin F. Butler (federal commanding officer of Fort Monroe) from settling "slave contraband” (escaped slaves that found refuge from the General) within the largely abandoned city. But what was raised from the rubble was the Grand Contraband Camp; a thriving community within the city.

With the encouragement of influential members of the community and the general himself, Mrs. Peake held her first class on September 17, 1861 underneath a sprawling oak tree (now known as the Emancipation Oak). With only a half dozen students the first day, her class size swelled in the weeks to come. She taught her students the same lessons she learned in her own schooling and was recognized as a dedicated teacher in an area and age in which it was illegal for her to do so.

However, Mary was suffering from tuberculosis (which she contracted prior to the war). She continued to teach, despite her failing health. Just after Christmas 1861, she was forced to leave her students and to bed. On February 22, 1862, Mary Peake quietly passed away.

Despite her short life, Mary is recognized as a brazen heroine; unwilling to allow the legal system to deny her fellow African-Americans from receiving an education. Underneath that oak tree in September 1861, she founded what eventually would become the respected center for higher education, Hampton University.


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