Mary Smith (née Kelsey) Peake(1823-February 22, 1862), an American teacher and humanitarian, is best known for having taught children of former slaves under the Emancipation Oak tree in 1861, the first educational effort from which grew Hampton University.
Mary Smith Peake was a free citizen of the Commonwealth of Virginia. She was born Mary Smith Kelsey in Norfolk, Virginia. Her father was an Englishman and her mother was a free black woman. When Mary was six, her mother sent her to Alexandria (then part of the District of Columbia) for the purpose of attending school. She remained there in school for about ten years, until a law of the United States Congress was enacted to the effect that the law of Virginia in relation to free mixed people should prevail in the District of Columbia. (This was several years before Alexandria was retroceded to Virginia in 1846). The new law closed all schools for mulattos in that city, as in Virginia (and other Southern states), after the Nat Turner Rebellion of 1831, and prior to Reconstruction after the Civil War, it was unlawful to educate non-whites. Thus, Mary was compelled to leave the school as she was from Virginia.
When sixteen years old, having finished her education, she returned to her mother, at Norfolk, where Mary secretly taught slaves for years. She founded an organization called the Daughters of Zion. The focus of this organization was to give assistance to the poor and the sick. She was a member of the First Baptist Church of Norfolk. She supported herself by making clothes and teaching. In 1851, she married Thomas Peake, a free Black. They had a daughter named Hattie whom they called "Daisy".
During the American Civil War (1861-1865), nearby Fort Monroe remained in Union hands, and became a place of refuge for escaped slaves seeking asylum, who were commonly referred to as "contraband", a legal status which prevented them from being returned to Confederate owners. They built the Grand Contraband Camp near but outside the protection of Fort Monroe. Mrs. Peake was asked to help teach, and began doing so on September 17, 1861 under the famous tree, which was located several miles outside of the protective safety of Fort Monroe in Phoebus, a small town in Elizabeth City County. Soon, sponsored by the American Missionary Association, she was teaching in the Brown Cottage, the seed from which Hampton Institute (and later Hampton University) would grow. Mary Peake's school included more than fifty children during the day and twenty adults at night. She became seriously ill but would not rest. On Washington's birthday in 1862 she died of tuberculosis. In 1863, the Virginia Peninsula community gathered under this tree to hear the first Southern reading of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
In modern times, the historic Emancipation Oak (at least 140 years old now) is located on the campus of Hampton University in what is now the City of Hampton, Virginia. It is designated one of the 10 Great Trees of the World by the National Geographic Society and is a National Historic Landmark.
The Mary Peake Center of Hampton Public Schools is named in her honor. According to its website, it is a "center for gifted children dedicated to providing a comprehensive set of experiences for those children who by nature of their complex processing abilities, require a fully differentiated educational environment."
Mary Peake Boulevard in Hampton was also named in her honor.
A book about her, Mary S. Peake, the Colored Teacher at Fortress Monroe was written shortly after her death by Reverend Lewis C. Lockwood.
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