Thursday, January 26, 2012

Remembering the Teachers - Who Brought Thousands Out of Darkness

Mary Peake taught many former slave children underneath Emancipation Oak, 
on what is now the campus of Hampton University. 
Source of Image: Past is Present

In the civil war years as well as the years immediately after the war, so much needed to be done to stimulate the minds of children, especially those whose status as slaves had denied them a formal education.  

From the works of women like Mary Peake, of Virginia to the teachers of the Port Royal Experiment, to the countless hundreds of others who labored for years, these women deserve their place on a Roll of Honor of people who worked towards the effort of freedom through education.

Port Royal Teacher Laura Towne

Mary Peake is one of the most well known--yet she is still unknown by many.  She was the daughter of a free black woman and an Englishman.  She was educated in Alexandria in the 1830s at a school for blacks in the District of Columbia. At that time, Alexandria was still part of the District of Washington. She began teaching in the 1840s from her home and later, after her marriage to Thomas Peake, a former slave, she moved with her husband  to Hampton Virginia. 

When the Civil War burned much of  Hampton, she found herself in a city among many newly freed slaves--known as contrabands. Many  had taken refuge at nearby Ft. Monroe. Others had lived in the Grand Contraband Camp in Hampton, established by Gen. Butler and Union forces, when Ft. Monroe had no more room. There she found herself in a city with hundreds of children wanting to learn. 

Projects emerged around the country and many organizations assisted in the process. The American Tract Society of Boston created a school primer for former slave children.

The Freedmen Spelling Book created by the American Tract Society of Boston

Even during the years of the war itself, thousands of men who had enlisted in the Union Army also set about the task of learning to read and write. So great was this desire to learn!

In Hampton, a project began with six students and then grew to dozens within a few days and Mary Peake immediately threw herself into her work. This was in the fall of 1861. She was often seen teaching children underneath a massive oak tree (now known as Emancipation Oak)

A small school structure was erected and she immersed herself into teaching over the next several months. As does happen with people often thrown into close contact, illness and disease occurs, and by winter, Mary Peake had caught tuberculosis after continuous weeks of work and constant exposure. Her illness progressed, during the winter but her constant desire was always for the children and to see that they would be taught. When she was first bedridden she was often known to still have children brought into her room and she would teach them from her bed. But eventually she could no longer teach. In February of 1862, she was finally overtaken by tuberculosis and died.

Mary Peake loved teaching and wanted to bring enlightenment into the lives and minds of the newly free slave children. Several months after her death, the black residents of the Hampton area were to hear the words of the Emancipation Proclamation read to them underneath the very oak tree where she taught new freed children of slaves. This was also the first public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

 Emancipation Oak, as it is known today still stands strongly on the campus at Hampton University. A few feet away from the trunk of Emancipation Oak  stands a small red schoolhouse said to be the Butler School building where Mary Peake and later other teachers taught.

Butler School Stands on Grounds Next to Emancipation Oak
Taken by Bernard Fisher, July 2010

The devotion of Mary Peake to teaching contraband children, and her devotion to her school became a model for other Freedman Schools throughout the South. 

From the teachers in Hampton to the Port Royal Experiment of the Low Country to the Freedmen Schools in Arkansas, teachers such as Mary Peake unlocked doors. The education of former slaves brought about the true ending of slavery to hundreds of thousands. Through education the shackles of bondage remained broken.

Emancipation Oak


  1. Thanks, Angela, for always providing the online community with such informative and enlightening posts. I grew up climbing on, and enjoying picnics under the branches of the "Great Oak", as we often referred to the Emancipation Oak. (Neither activity is any longer allowed, as The Oak is now surrounded by a gate.) I was taught from an early age what the meaning of that spot was, and still enjoy a reverent, peaceful moment or two there, from time to time.
    Also, I grew up in the historic section of Hampton known as, "Aberdeen", which includes Mary Peake Blvd., so I've that great lady's name has always been a part of my knowledge-base. :)

    Thanks again for all of your work and research.


    1. Wow Renate,

      How lucky you were growing up under the shade of that mighty oak! Do you have any photos of picnics under that tree? How wonderful that you lived so close to the place where so much took place!!! Such history. I hope next time to visit the grave site of Mary Peake.

  2. Early teachers like her we owe so much to. The devotion she had for teaching even while sick is just the sign of someone who was a true hero. Thank you for sharing this.

    1. Andrea you are quite right. Her devotion made such a difference in her short time teaching under Emancipation Oak. She should never be forgotten.

  3. Thank for sharing this information Angela!! What a beautiful symbol for the education of our people.

  4. Hello Yvette, I was glad to share it! Thanks so much!

  5. While I marveled at her dedication to teaching, I couldn't help but wonder if any of the children she taught came down with TB. That was such a common, devastating illness of that time.