In Their Own Words: Mary Jane Wilson, Educator – Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex, Portsmouth, Virginia

Gravestone of Mary Jane Wilson, Mt. Calvary Cemetery (Mt. Calvary Cemetery Complex). Photo: Nadia K. Orton, March 5, 2011. All rights reserved.

In 1937, Ms. Mary Jane Wilson, “Pioneer Negro Teacher of Portsmouth, Virginia,” reflects on her life…

On her parents

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.”

On her childhood

During this time I was small, and I didn’t have so much work to do. I jus helped around the house.”

On the Union Army in Portsmouth, Virginia (1863)

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.”

My father went to work in the Norfolk Navy Yard as a teamster. He began right away buying us a home. He was one of the first Negro land owners in Portsmouth after emancipation. My father builed his own house. It’s only two blocks from here, and it still stands with few improvements.:

On education

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.

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.”

The Chestnut Street School, 1879. Portsmouth Public Library
Emanuel A.M.E. Church (1772). Portsmouth, Virginia. Photo: Nadia K. Orton, 2011.

Sufficient evidence is before the Commission that colored refugees in general place a high value both on education for their children and religious instruction for themselves. In Alexandria and in various other places it came to the knowledge of the Commission that one of the first acts of the negroes when they found themselves free was to establish schools at their own expense; and in every instance where schools and churches have been provided for them they have shown lively gratitude and the greatest eagerness to avail themselves of such opportunities of improvement . Source: Office American Freemen’s Inquiry, Commission to Hon. Edward M. Stanton, Secretary of War. New York, June 30, 1863

Mary Jane Wilson was the daughter of Joshua Wilson (b. ca. 1833), a teamster at the Norfolk Navy Yard, and Lovey Wilson (ca. 1834-1887), a confectioner. They were both members of Loving Union Lodge. While reading Mary Jane’s narrative, I was curious about her statement that her father, Joshua, was one of the first African American landowners in Portsmouth following Emancipation. Some years ago, I’d discovered that my paternal great-great-great-great-grandfather, Joel Elliott (ca. 1818-1873), a free person of color from Suffolk, Virginia, had purchased land in 1865, Portsmouth, making him one of the first black landowners during that era. I wondered: did Joshua Wilson and my fourth great-grandfather, Joel, purchase land at the same time? Were they neighbors?

Joel Elliott’s land was located in Norfolk County, Virginia, in an area annexed by the City of Portsmouth in 1894. Rather than plan a trip to the Chesapeake City, Virginia courthouse, where many Norfolk County records are kept, I reviewed my Portsmouth genealogy files, and realized I already had a copy of Joshua Wilson’s deed of purchase. On August 8, 1865, Joshua purchased a plot of land (.0465 acres) from the Niemeyer Estate, for the sum of two hundred and twenty five dollars. It was located on the corner of Carroll and Green streets, only two houses down from my fourth-great-grandfather Joel Elliott’s residence. I couldn’t believe it. Regiments of the United States Colored Troops, Army of the James, had entered and liberated Richmond, Virginia, on April 3, 1865, just four months prior. A mental picture began to form: Mary Jane Wilson’s father, Joshua, and my fourth great-grandfather, Joel, together in the courthouse on August 8, 1865, becoming some of the the first African American landowners in Portsmouth after Emancipation. It was nothing short of amazing.

With further research, I found the similarities didn’t end there. Historic Emanuel A. M.E., (est. 1772), is one of our ancestors’ mother churches. According to the church archives, Mary Jane Wilson became a member of Emanuel A. M. E. church in 1865, through probation, and was received by Rev. Jeremiah R. V. Thomas, whose family had escaped slavery in Cambridge, Maryland via the Underground Railroad in 1839. Mary Jane later became a member of Emanuel’s Sunday School class No. 15.

I couldn’t help but wonder if Mary Jane taught some of my ancestors. It was certainly possible. In an 1893 alumni catalog, Hampton University described Mary Jane as having taught over three hundred students, and twelve of those former students also became teachers.

In researching Mary Jane Wilson’s life in Portsmouth, I lost track of her whereabouts in the 1900 and 1910 Federal census, but she regularly turns up in city directories between 1901 and 1920, on Green street. In the 1920 Census, she was documented as a lodger in the home of Giles I. Cuffee, letter carrier, identified as a maid for a private family. At some point after 1930, she was transferred to the Old Folks Home. In her interview, Mary Jane was proud to state that her father’s home, built between 1865-1866, was still standing by 1937 (the date of the interview). I wanted to know what it looked like, and eagerly reviewed our family’s pictures of Green Street, Portsmouth, but only found a few images of Mary’s neighbors’ homes.

A home on Green St., Portsmouth, Virginia, 1960. Orton Family files, all rights reserved.
William T. Hall Convalescent Home (formerly “The Old Folks Home.”) Portsmouth Public Library

It saddens me a little to know that Mary Jane Wilson passed away only eighteen months after her interview. Her death certificate lists no occupation, marital status single, and cause of death chronic myocarditis. I pictured her as a little girl, born enslaved, with such a thirst for knowledge, who made education her life’s pursuit as soon as she was allowed a chance. A commitment to education that left a legacy of African American students, some of whom became teachers, who each carried their gift forward to the community.

First Colored Teacher Here Succumbs – Mary Jane Wilson, one of the oldest citizens of this section and said to have been the first colored school teacher in Portsmouth, died in a local hospital Monday morning after an illness of several weeks. She resided in the Old Folks Home on North Green street for many years, and was widely known and respected. She was a graduate of Hampton Normal and Industrial Institute, class of 1874, it was revealed, and immediately thereafter she taught school in this city.

A native of Portsmouth, she was considered the oldest member in Emanuel A. M. E. church, and up until her fatal illness, she attended every service there. Her body was moved to the funeral home of Victor H. Small for preparation for burial, and funeral services will be held Friday, 2:30 p.m. in Emanuel church, the Rev. Charles E. Stewart officiating. – Colored Notes, The Portsmouth Star, November 3, 1938.

It comes as no surprise that Mary Jane’s story fascinates me. Teachers are some of my favorite folks. It takes a special person to teach, to light that spark of wonder in the minds of so many, with the patience and commitment to do so. Rest in power, Ms. Wilson.

We regard the education of colored people in North America as being one of the most important measures connected with the destiny of our race.  By it we can be strengthened and elevated – without it we shall be ignorant, weak, and degraded. By it we shall be clothed with a power which will enable us to arise from degradation and command respect from the whose civilized world: without it, we shall ever be imposed upon, oppressed and enslaved; not that we are more stupid than others would be under the same circumstances, indeed very few races of men have the corporal ability to survive, under the same physical and mental depression that the colored race have to endure, and still retain their manhood…

With this mass of degradation before us, we say that the most effectual remedy for the above evils is education. It is the best fortune that a father can give his son; it is a treasure that can never be squandered, and one that will always command respect and secure a good livelihood for an industrious person…We should at least know how to read and write; and when we have learned this, we have the best means with which to educate ourselves. – Henry Bibb, Voice of the Fugitive, January 15, 1851

Additional Sources

U. S. War Dept. The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series III: vol. 3, p. 432. Washington, DC: GPO, 1880-1901

Mary Jane Wilson, interview by Thelma Dunston, 1937, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writer’s Project, 1936-1938Library of Congress, accessed March 13, 2019.

City of Chesapeake (VA), Register of Deeds. Selected Records. Chesapeake, VA.

Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (Va.). Twenty-two Years’ Work of the Hampton Normal And Agricultural Institute At Hampton, Virginia.: Records of Negro And Indian Graduates And Ex-students With Historical And Personal Sketches And Testimony On Important Race Questions From Within And Without, to Which Are Added … Some of the Songs of the Races Gathered In the School. : Illustrated With Views And Maps. Hampton: Normal School Press, 1893. HathiTrust. Web. 22 March 2019.

“First Colored Teacher Here Succumbs.” Portsmouth Star. 3 Nov 1938. Print

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