Meet Mrs. Peake
The emancipation of education of a newly freed people is deeply rooted in Hampton, VA and began with a beloved humanitarian whose passion for education was just as deeply rooted there. Mary Smith Kelsey was born free in Norfolk, VA in 1823 and educated in Alexandria, VA (then part of the District of Columbia) until the US Congress enacted a law prohibiting education and closing all schools for free people of color in D.C., mirroring the educational landscape in Virginia and several other southern states.
Many believe that although Mary was just a teenager, this was the very moment that served as the catalyst for what became her profound legacy and changed the course of the lives for many generations to come. In 1839, at age sixteen Mary returned to live with her mother. After being denied access to the classroom, she risked her own freedom as she began secretly teaching free and enslaved African Americans to read and write. Upon her mother remarrying, she and her family relocated to Hampton where she expanded her curriculum and eventually gained the approval of local authorities. Mary was one of few women of color whose teaching was officially sanctioned by the Union army as the United States entered the Civil War in the 1850s.
Mary wed Thomas Peake, a formerly enslaved man who worked in the merchant marine, in 1851. They had a daughter named Hattie, whom they nicknamed “Daisy”. While in Hampton, she also founded a women’s charitable organization, called the Daughters of Zion, whose mission was to assist the poor and the sick. She made a living by dressmaking and continued her secret mission of educating her people – both young and old. Among her adult students was her stepfather Thompson Walker, who progressed as a more prominent leader of African Americans in Hampton through her teachings. Her teachings are largely attributed to fostering the African American population of Hampton to develop a literacy rate that outpaced most other communities in the South.
Her fortitude to serve as a conduit to educate her people, particularly during a time when it was forbidden, demonstrates that she understood the value of education and what it represented. Mary recognized that access to fundamental education and literacy could have a profound impact not only the student, but also on their entire family and community. Although she was breaking state law, the Union Army and other white leadership gave tacit sanction to her lessons on the grounds of Fort Monroe once the Civil War began. In 1861, when those who fled enslavement, then regarded as “contraband”, began flocking to the fort to seek freedom Mary’s educational mission increased in masses. She initially taught at the foot of an oak tree in Phoebus (now known as the aforementioned Emancipation Oak), but she was ultimately provided a cottage to serve as her classroom, which is recognized as the very first facility of what is now Hampton University.
Mary continued to teach adults and children from her sick bed until tuberculosis took her life in 1862 at age 39. The year after she died, the oak tree that once provided shade for her outdoor lessons was the setting for the first public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in the Deep South. Local residents gathered there to receive word that President Abraham Lincoln had formally begun the process of freeing those who were enslaved. The Emancipation Oak still stands on the campus of Hampton University. It has grown mightily with the passage of time, extending its reach upward and outward. Much like Mary Peake’s legacy.
Today, an early childhood education center is named for her in Hampton, and a stretch of road near Aberdeen Elementary.
Photographs of Mary Peake and Emancipation Oak courtesy of Hampton University Archives.
Mary Peake Award for Excellence in Education Equity
Beginning in the 2019-2020 school year, the Virginia Department of Education will honor Mrs. Peake’s legacy of courage and determination with the annual recognition of outstanding work toward our shared goal to advance equitable outcomes for all students. Those eligible to be nominated for the Mary Peake Award for Excellence in Education Equity include school board members, superintendents, and legislators.