Mary Jane Wilson
Interview of Miss Mary Jane Wilson
NEGRO PIONEER TEACHER OF PORTSMOUTH, VIRGINIA
One of the rooms in the Old Folks Home for Colored in Portsmouth,
Virginia is occupied by an ex-slave--one of the first Negro teachers of
On meeting Miss Mary Jane Wilson, very little questioning was needed to
get her to tell of her life. Drawing her chair near a small stove, she
said, "my Mother and Father was slaves, and when I was born, that made
me a slave. I was the only child. My Mother was owned by one family, and
my Father was owned by another family. My mother and father was allowed
to live together. One day my father's mastah took my father to Norfolk
and put him in a jail to stay until he could sell him. My missus bought
my father so he could be with us."
"During this time I was small, and I didn't have so much work to do. I
jus helped around the house."
"I was in the yard one day, and I saw so many men come marching down the
street, I ran and told my mother what I'd seen. She tried to tell me
what it was all about, but I couldn't understand her. Not long after
that we was free."
Taking a long breath, the old woman said, "My father went to work in the
Norfolk Navy Yard as a teamster. He began right away buying us a home.
We was one of the first Negro land owners in Portsmouth after
emancipation. My father builded [SP: builed] his own house. It's only
two blocks from here, and it still stands with few improvements."
With a broad smile Miss Wilson added, "I didn't get any teachings when I
was a slave. When I was free, I went to school. The first school I went
to was held in a church. Soon they builded a school building that was
called, 'Chestnut Street Academy', and I went there. After finishing
Chestnut Street Academy, I went to Hampton Institute. In 1874, six years
after Hampton Institute was started, I graduated."
At this point Miss Wilson's pride was unconcealed. She continued her
conversation, but her voice was much louder and her speech was much
faster. She remarked, "My desire was to teach. I opened a school in my
home, and I had lots of students. After two years my class grew so fast
and large that my father built a school for me in our back yard. I had
as many as seventy-five pupils at one time. Many of them became
teachers. I had my graduation exercises in the Emanuel A. M. E. Church.
Those were my happiest days."
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