Honoring Black Educators
As I am sure you are aware, the month of February is dedicated to honoring the works, triumphs, and lives of Black Americans. In sticking with this theme, I decided to modify this Diversity Highlight to do just that, honor Black educators whose work revolutionized the teaching profession as we know it. Here, I will honor three individuals–Mary Jane Patterson, Edward Alexander Bouchet, and Earnest Everett Just–whose names may not have graced our history books, but their legacy deserves to live on. The website I collected this information from, Biography, highlights a number of notable individuals, so I strongly encourage you to visit it to learn more about them.
Mary Jane Patterson
Mary Jane Patterson was born in 1840 in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is known as the first African-American woman to receive a Bachelor’s degree. Patterson was the oldest of seven children, and it is believed that her parents courageously escaped slavery in 1852 in hopes of freedom and the opportunity for their children’s education. They ended up settling in Oberlin, Ohio in 1856, where her father supported the family through his work as a skilled mason and by boarding black students who attended the local Oberlin College.
Oberlin College, having a rather progressive legacy, was the perfect place for Patterson. Not only did it begin admitting African-American students to its institution in 1835, just two years later it became the first higher-education institution to begin admitting women; moreover, Oberlin was the first college to grant undergraduate degrees to women. After completing a year of preparatory coursework, Patterson broke with tradition by enrolling in the school’s “gentlemen’s course,” instead of the traditional two-year program for women. She finished the four-year program of study that led to a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1862.
Post-graduation, Patterson worked as a school-teacher for two years before leaving for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There she taught at the Institute for Colored Youth for the next five years. In 1869, she moved to Washington, D.C. to teach at the newly founded Preparatory High School for Colored Youth (now Paul Laurence Dunbar High School), which was the first public high school for African Americans in the United States. She became principal at the school two years later before serving as the assistant principal the following year under Richard T. Greener, the first African-American graduate of Harvard University. Greener left after one year, prompting Patterson to reclaim her role as principal until her resignation in 1884.
It is believed that Patterson remained as a teacher at the school until her death in 1894. During her time there, the school became well-known as a prominent secondary-education institution. Besides her work in Education, Patterson was involved in early women’s rights movements, including helping to establish the Colored Women’s League of Washington, D.C. Her home in Washington, D.C. is part of the city’s historic walking tour.
Edward Alexander Bouchet
Edward Alexander Bouchet was born in 1852 in New Haven, Connecticut, and is best known as being the first African-American person to earn a Ph.D. degree. He was the youngest of four children born to former slaves who ended up gaining freedom and finding work at Yale College (now Yale University). Bouchet excelled in primary and secondary school, and was even named valedictorian of his high school class. Bouchet’s parents, simultaneously seeing his academic promise and holding jobs at one of the most prestigious institutions in our country, were hopeful for his future academic career.
Fulfilling his parents’ dream, Bouchet became the first African-American student to be admitted to Yale. Although excelling under a challenging Classics curriculum including Latin, Greek, French, and German, Bouchet realized his true academic passions lied in mathematics and the sciences, including mechanics, physics, and astronomy. Upon graduation in 1874, Bouchet had received summa cum laudehonors in each of his courses and finished sixth in his class. That same year, he continued onto graduate school at Yale, and ended up finishing his doctorate in Physics just two years later, becoming the first African-American to do so. At that time, he had become only the sixth person in the country to earn a Ph.D. in Physics in the U.S.
Although Bouchet was known to have loved his subsequent career as an educator, he never received the professional respect that he deserved. Racial discrimination prevented his career as a research scientist from burgeoning, so Bouchet instead went to work at the School for Colored Youth in Philadelphia, the same school Mary Jane Patterson taught during her early professional years. For the next 25 years, he taught physics and chemistry courses during the time when rigorous curricula for African-American students were uncommon. After leaving that school, Bouchet traveled around the country working as a teacher and principal at a number of schools.
With failing health, Bouchet returned to his hometown of New Haven, before passing away in 1918 at the age of 66. Since his death, Bouchet has received multiple awards and honors from around the world. In his honor, Yale alone erected a tombstone in 1998, founded the Edward Alexander Bouchet Graduate Honor Society, and established the Bouchet Leadership Award for individuals who primate diversity in higher education.
Earnest Everett Just
Scientist, Biologist, Educator (1883–1941)
Earnest Everett Just was born on August 14, 1883 in Charleston, South Carolina, and he is best known around the world for his contributions as a scientist. After his father died when he was just four years old, Just’s family moved to James Island, South Carolina, where his mother became a respected leader of the phosphate mining community where they lived. Just excelled in school, and he eventually moved north to New Hampshire in hopes of a better academic opportunity. Although he was the only Black student at his high school, Just reported feeling welcomed into a warm and friendly environment.
After graduating from Kimball Union Academy, Just attended Dartmouth College. Despite feeling socially isolated during his time in college, he graduated magna cum laudein biology, with a minor in history, in 1907. After graduating, Just set his sights on Howard University, where he became an instructor in English and rhetoric, and later joined the Biology department where he was later appointed Professor.
Professionally, Just had a lively career. After working for many years at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, he realized that a Ph.D. degree would be crucial for continued growth and success. Thus, Just moved to attend the University of Chicago where he began his program of self-study that led to the degree in 1916. From there he went on to publish 50 scientific papers and two books.
Despite earning his Ph.D., Just had trouble becoming a research scientist at any major American university. In 1930, he moved to Naples, Italy in order to continue his research. Following, he became the first American to be invited to conduct research at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. He worked there for a short time before moving to Paris after Nazis took control of Germany in 1933. During his time in Paris, Just continued his illustrious career in research, and he also met his second wife, a German national named Maid Hedwig Schnetzler. Upon the Nazi invasion of France in 1940, Just was imprisoned for some time in a POW camp until he was released with the help of his wife’s family and the U.S. State Department.
Unfortunately, his time imprisoned in Paris only exacerbated his already declining health. After being released, he returned to the United States. He died a little over a year later in 1941 after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Just’s legacy is known for his love and advancement of the fields of Biology and Cytology, having earned multiple national and international awards for his research.
Upcoming Holidays and Observances
Month of February: Black History Month (U.S. Observance)
- Especially during the month of February, we recognize and honor the lives and accomplishments of Black Americans. This year, ASALH’s (Association for the Study of African American Life and History)’s theme for the dedication is “Black Migrations,” where implications of the movement of people of African descent to new places and subsequently new social realities is emphasized.
Wednesday, February 20, 2019: World Day of Social Justice (International Observance)
- Sponsored by the United Nations, this day was designated to encourage peace and prosperity for people of all nations, regardless of their social identity or group membership. This year’s theme is titled “If You Want Peace and Development, Work for Social Justice.”
References for this Month's Highlights:
- “African-American Firsts: Education,” via Biography
- “Mary Jane Patterson Biography” via Biography
- “Mary Jane Patterson (1840–1894)” by Carla Garner, via Black Past
- “Edward Alexander Bouchet Biography” via Biography
- “Edward Alexander Bouchet (1852–1918)” via Black Past
- “Ernest Everett Just Biography” via Biography
- “Ernest Everett Just (1883–1941)” by I. W. Gabriel Selassie, via Black Past
- “ASALH Announces 2019 Black History Theme, Black Migrations” via ASALH
- “World Day of Social Justice 20 February” via UN