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Mary Jane Patterson (1840-1894) moved to Washington in 1869 to accept a teaching position at the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (currently Dunbar High School). She would later serve as the second principal, playing an instrumental role in making it one of the best high schools in the country. Patterson was well equipped educationally — she is believed to be the first black female to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from an established college (Oberlin) in 1862. (According to the Oberlin College Archives, in 1850 Lucy Stanton [Day/Sessions] became the first black woman to earn a four-year degree, but this was not the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts degree.)

Patterson, born in Raleigh, North Carolina, moved to Oberlin, Ohio, with her parents and siblings in 1856. It was at Oberlin, apparently, that teaching and education piqued her interest. (She was followed at Oberlin by other notable Washingtonians, including Anna Julia Cooper, Ida Gibbs Hunt, and Mary Church Terrell.) After graduation Patterson became a teacher at the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, where she remained until 1869.

Patterson left one highly regarded educational institution for another, the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, which had just been organized. She began working there as a teacher and was quickly promoted to principal, a job she held in 1871-1872 and from 1873 through 1884. She would continue to teach until her death. Patterson, who was the school's first black principal, built a strong foundation for the first public high school for blacks in the nation. Her achievements include the initiation of high school commencements and a teacher-training department.

In addition to educational responsibilities, Patterson immersed herself within women's rights movements. She, along with Josephine Beall Bruce, Anna Julia Cooper, Charlotte Forten Grimke, and Mary Church Terrell, founded the Colored Women's League of Washington, D.C., in 1894. The League, a predecessor of the National Association of Colored Women, focused on training for kindergarten teachers and industrial and homemaking skills for working-class women.

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