The story of educator and humanitarian Mary Smith Peake (pictured) is most certainly known to students of Virginia’s Hampton University, considering much of her tale unfolded on the grounds of the historically black academic institution. On this day in 1861, Peake is credited for teaching the first class for freed slaves under what’s now known as the “Emancipation Oak.”
Peake was born free in the town of Norfolk to an Englishman Father and Black Mother in 1823. At 6 years of age, Peake was sent north to the city of Alexandria, which was still part of the District of Columbia. For a decade, she attended school and became quite educated until a law passed by Congress outlawed free Blacks from attending schools.
At age 16, Peake returned to Norfolk in 1839 and was secretly teaching slaves and freedmen how to read and write. Her mother would later marry, and the family resettled in Hampton. Although she took up work as a seamstress, Peake taught adults in secret and even gave lessons to her stepfather.
In 1851, Peake would marry and later had a daughter; however, the year 1861 would turn out to be the most-legendary chapter of her life.
During the Civil War, the Union Army held Fort Monroe, which was near the Peake home. At the time, the Union referred to the slaves as “contraband,” so they could keep Confederate forces from returning them to slave owners. The fort ended up serving as a safe haven for slaves escaping from Confederate forces.
Peake would start teaching the children of former slaves, and the American Missionary Association (AMA) paid Peake a small salary to become its first Black teacher.
Under a large oak in the now-extinct town of Phoebus (now Hampton), Peake held the class, greeting around 20 students. The AMA later gifted Brown Cottage to Peake, which is often referred to as the first building on Hampton University’s campus. Peake taught 50 children in the day and 20 adults at night. However, Peake’s time at the helm of Brown Cottage would come to a tragic end as she passed away from tuberculosis in February 1862.
In 1863, the tree was renamed the “Emancipation Oak” because the Emancipation Proclamation was read there for the first time in the South. The tree still stands majestic as ever on the grounds of Hampton University, and Mary Peake’s awe-inspiring legacy grows right along with it.