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Sun, 01.05.1823

Mary Smith Kelsey Peake, Seamstress, and Teacher born

Mary Smith Kelsey Peake

*The birth of Mary Smith Kelsey Peake is celebrated on this date in 1823.  She was a Black teacher, school administrator, and seamstress.  

Born in Norfolk, Virginia, the daughter of a free Black woman and a white Englishman. When she was six, Mary was sent to live with her aunt and uncle to attend a school for Blacks in Alexandria, which was then a part of the District of Columbia.  During her schooling, she probably learned mathematics, reading, writing, and sewing skills; she returned to Norfolk in 1839. 

In 1847 Peake moved with her family to Hampton. While supporting herself as a dressmaker, she secretly began teaching from home, instructing Blacks of all ages.  She also founded the Daughters of Zion to aid the poor and the sick. In 1851 she married Thomas Peake, a former slave. The Peake family home was destroyed early in the American Civil War when Confederate forces torched Hampton. Many displaced Black families from Hampton were forced to seek refuge near Fort Monroe.

In September 1861, Peake started a school near the fortress, within the present grounds of Hampton University. Her enrollment grew from six to more than fifty students in a few days.  Peake was a dedicated instructor, creating a school for adults in the evenings and continuing to teach despite failing health, even when she was bedridden. She died of tuberculosis in February 1862. Her school was one of the first of its kind and served as a model for a number of other schools that taught African Americans throughout the South in Union-occupied territory. Today, the city of Hampton honors Peake with a school, a street, and a park. 

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