Reaffirming “Historically” Black Colleges: Mary Peake and Emancipation Oak

For decades, Black Colleges have been designated as “historic,” but why?  With so much of the recent discourse surrounding hbcus, issues of mergers, sex scandals, graduation rates, effectiveness, etc.. It is important we do not lose sight of why these schools are indeed historic.  Lets start with our alma mater, The Real HU, Hampton Institute.

Beginning in Hampton, Virginia, 1862, ex-slaves identified as “contraband of war” began reporting to Fortress Monroe to receive an informal education.  Rev. C. L. Lockwood, an officer of the American Missionary Association, was sent to Hampton to begin instructing contraband in the area.  Lockwood did not need to be there long to recognize the passion and intense desire of the freedmen to earn a livelihood for themselves through means of a quality education.  By September 17, 1861, a formal school was officially opened and Mary Peake, a Black woman was appointed as its primary teacher.

Mary S. Peake

Oliver Otis Howard, director of the Freedmen’s Bureau appointed Samuel Armstrong to lay the foundations of Hampton Institute.  Armstrong attested to the freedmen’s awareness that freedom would only be useful, if freedmen received an education.  As more and more fugitives migrated to the Hampton area, Peake and others recognized the growing need for governmental assistance. The AMA and the Freedmen’s Bureau responded by helping create schools exclusively for the higher education of Blacks.

As Samuel Armstrong later noted, “No teachers of another race could do for the freed people what was waiting to be done by men and women of their own blood.” These schools fulfilled the purpose of producing skilled workers, instilling self-respect and moral character, and to the intent of training teachers to uplift the masses.  Although by 1868 nearly eleven schools of higher education were created, Hampton stood out with its unique message and educational philosophy.  From this school emerged one of the most successful Black leaders, and a philosophy that impacted millions, first in the South, then regionally, and by the turn of the century, internationally.

By 1865, more than 90,000 former slaves were enrolled as students in public schools, with attendance rates reaching upwards to 80 percent.  The earliest and arguably most vital teacher in the early days at Hampton was Mary Peake. With little to no compensation for her efforts, Peake sacrificed so much, and diligently worked to aid her race in social and moral uplift.

Emancipation Oak c. 1861

The spot where Peake taught is now remembered as Emancipation Oak.  The, historic landmark now serves as the first visual as students, faculty, and visitors enter the campus. Emancipation Oak is also a designated place for special events on Hampton’s campus.  For the past few decades, The Gamma Iota chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha has honored the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., by hosting an annual MLK march that begins with the lighting of candles and a ceremonial moment of silence, beginning at Emancipation Oak.

Emancipation Oak today

In May 2010, a piece of Emancipation Oak was presented to the Nation’s first African American President, Barack Obama, as he delivered the commencement address at Hampton University.  In the opening of President Obama’s address, he cited the significance of Mary Peake and Emancipation Oak.  He said, “You know we meet here today as graduating classes have met for generations, not far from where it all began, near that old Oak tree off Emancipation drive… There, beneath its branches by what was then a Union garrison, about twenty students gathered on September 17, 1861, taught by a free citizen in defiance of Virginia law, the students were escaped slaves prior nearby plantations who had fled to the fort, seeking asylum.”

Since those days where contraband slaves ran away to gain freedom and receive an education, Hampton Institute has continued to serve as a beacon of freedom, hope, and education.  Consistently one of the top schools in the Nation (yes nation) Hampton has recently opened up a Proton Therapy Institute and a Skin Color Research Institute.  Hampton remains one of the top producers of African American teachers as well.  Indeed the efforts of Mary Peake have been rewarded.


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