MARY SMITH PEAKE (1823 – 1862)
Mary was born in Norfolk, Virginia to a free black woman and a prominent, white Englishman. At the age of six, Mary was sent to Alexandria to live with her aunt and attend school. People of African-American decent were prohibited from attending school in Virginia. At that time, Alexandria was part of Washington, DC. Mary remained there for ten years learning reading, writing, mathematics, and sewing skills, which would later provide financial support to her family.
In 1839, Mary returned to Norfolk and remained there until her family moved to Hampton, Virginia several years later. Mary was a devoted Christian and enjoyed singing religious songs. In 1851, she married Thomas Peake. Together they had a daughter, Hattie, who went by the pet name of Daisy.
Mary started a local chapter of the Daughters of Zion, a benevolent society dedicated to helping the poor and sick. She defied Virginia law to secretly teach the children of slaves in a remote area of Hampton, under a large oak tree now known as the Emancipation Tree.
After losing her home when Confederates burned down the town of Hampton, Mary and her family moved to a brown cottage along the shore of Hampton Roads. They lived on the second floor and, with the protection of Union troops, Mary conducted her classes on the first floor. The American Missionary Association (AMA) commenced services there in September 1, 1861 and appointed Mary their first teacher in Hampton.
Mary became ill and was attended to by Doctor Browne, a Union brigade surgeon from nearby Fortress Monroe. On February 22, 1862, she succumbed to her battle with tuberculosis. Chaplain Fuller of the 16th Massachusetts regiment led a service on the first floor of her cottage, where she had conducted classes for the children and adults of Hampton. Following a long procession involving many of the town’s people, Mary was buried below a large oak tree.
The only known book written about Mary was by Reverend Lewis C. Lockwood of the AMA (Mary S. Peake: The Colored Teacher of Fortress Monroe).