The daughter of two fugitive slaves, Mary Jane Patterson was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1840. When she was 12, her family moved to Oberlin, Ohio were Mary later enrolled into Oberlin College. Receiving her B.A. in 1862, the then-young scholar became the first African American woman to graduate from an established 4-year institution.
Upon graduation, Mary became mentor to a plethora of Black youths, teaching at several educational facilities throughout the East Coast. In 1971, she became the first Black principal at the Preparatory High School for Negros, where she taught until her death on September 24, 1894.