If you believed in something strongly enough, would you break the law to do it?
A few steps from here rest the remains of Mary Smith Kelsey Peake, who dedicated her life to teaching enslaved and free African Americans to read—even though it was illegal. Though she died at just 39, her short life affected hundreds of African Americans who benefitted from her tenacious defiance of Virginia law.
The daughter of a free mulatto woman and a Frenchman, Peake was born free in 1823 in Norfolk. She attended a school for African American children in Alexandria, where she acquired “a good English education” before law made it illegal for African Americans to assemble for the purpose of education.
Peake had been secretly teaching in Hampton many years before the Civil War. When the Union army arrived in 1861, word spread about her talents and passion for teaching. Peake taught under the Emancipation Oak on the campus of present-day Hampton University. She taught 50 children at a time in a cottage near the abandoned Chesapeake Baptist Female Seminary. She became the first African American teacher for the American Missionary Association.
Peake contracted tuberculosis and died in February 1862. A procession of her pupils accompanied her coffin to this spot, where she was buried beneath an oak tree. Psalm 118:17 was read at her funeral—“I shall not die, but live”—a fitting selection for a deeply religious woman, but also a memorial to a teacher whose legacy outlives her own short years.
Marker: Civil War Trails