Mary Jane Patterson was a notable educator who became the first Black principal of Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (Dunbar High School) in Washington, D.C.
Patterson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Henry and Emeline Patterson; she was one of seven children. Henry Irving and Emeline Eliza Patterson were fugitive slaves. In 1856, the Patterson family moved to Ohio, where Henry worked as a skilled mason and the family offered to board Black students in their home.
She graduated from Oberlin College, becoming the first Black woman to receive a B.A. degree from an established American college. Patterson started her career in 1865, when she became an assistant to Fanny Jackson in the Female Department of the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia. She later took a teaching position in Washington, D.C., at the new Preparatory High School for Colored Youth.
Patterson helped establish a strong intellectual program for black students. Patterson also devoted time and money to other Black institutions in Washington, D.C., especially to industrial schools for young Black women, as well as to the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored People. She never married, nor did her two Oberlin-educated sisters, Chanie and Emeline, who later joined her and taught in district schools. Patterson died in 1894, she was 54.