Mary S. Peake
Mary Smith Peake 1823 - 1862
Mary Smith Peake (Kelsey) was born a free slave in Norfolk, Virginia in 1823. She is best known for starting a school and teaching children of former slaves under an oak tree, which later became known as the Emancipation Oak (in present-day Hampton, Virginia on the campus of Hampton University, a historically black college).
Mary’s father was an Englishman who held high rank and her mother was considered to be a “free woman of color” because of her lighter skin-tone. At age six, her parents sent her to live with a family member in Alexandria, Virginia, which at the time was part of the District of Columbia, to attend school. While living in Alexandria she studied dressmaking, reading, writing and arithmetic. She also learned dressmaking. And she resided there until a new law enacted by Congress in 1839, prohibiting freed slaves from being educated in the District of Columbia. The law was implemented because white people feared a greater uprising of slaves because of the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831. So, this resulted in Kelsey moving back to Virginia to live with her mother.
Although law prohibited it, Mary Kelsey would secretly teach slaves and free blacks how to read and write in 1839 from her home. She supported herself with her dressmaking. In 1851, she married Thomas Peake, a freed man who worked in the merchant marine. During the 1850s secretly taught before the Union army sanctioned her teaching with the rise of the Civil War. In 1861, Mary Peake was a dedicated instructor who taught outside under a large oak tree to adults (slaves and freed slaves) in the evenings as well as to children during the daytime. Although her health began to fail due to tuberculosis she did not give up teaching her students.
Today, in the city of Hampton, Peake is honored for her accomplishments and commitment to educating African Americans. She is also known for being the first black teacher to be hired by the American Missionary Association.