Under an oak tree in the southeastern Virginia town of Phoebus, a quiet revolution begins: Mary Smith Peak teaches the first classes to African American children on the grounds of present-day Hampton University.
Born in Norfolk in 1823 to an Englishman and a free black woman, Mary Kelsey received a formal education then returned home to Norfolk to secretly teach slaves at a time when educating slaves in Virginia was illegal. Joining the First Baptist Church of Norfolk, she founded the church’s benevolent society. She also taught reading and writing to the congregation’s children. In 1851, Kelsey married Thomas Peake of Hampton and then moved with her husband to Hampton. During the war, Thomas served as a spy for the Union Army.
On August 7, 1861, Confederate forces burned Hampton, known to be home to many “contraband” (emancipated) slaves, to the ground. The Rebels captured some 150 escaped slaves, then retreated. As were other houses, the Peake home was destroyed. Prior to the burning, Mary had used her home to teach slaves to read, despite laws prohibiting such activity. Afterward, she moved her tutoring services to an abandoned cottage next to the Chesapeake Baptist Female Seminary.
Soon, however, Union forces secure control of the area, and today Mary Peake begins a new chapter in educating black children. Gathering children around her under an oak tree just outside of the town of Hampton and near the Union’s Fort Monroe, Peake teaches her charges openly, rather than in hiding. Two months later, she receives financial support from the American Missionary Association, a pro-abolition organization supported by various northern Christian denominations.
The ground under the oak tree is destined to become hallowed. In 1863, as many area black citizens gather under the oak’s branches, the first Southern public reading of President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation takes place on the same ground where Peake taught the children of slaves to read. The oak tree thus became known as the Emancipation Oak.
After the war, in 1868 a school is founded on land near the oak tree. Sponsored by General Samuel C. Armstrong and the American Missionary Association, the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a land grant school, teaches African Americans, including Booker T. Washington. The school obtains university status in 1984.
Mary, unfortunately, does not live long enough to hear the Emancipation Proclamation. She dies of tuberculosis on February 22, 1862.