Black History: Special Delivery!!
Author and educator, Sarah Jane Woodson Early (1825-1907) is recognized as the first African American female university professor in the United States; assuming the role in 1858; teaching Latin and English.
Early was the youngest of 11 children born to Jemima (Riddle) and Thomas Woodson. Sara was born free in Chillicothe, Ohio. Her parents were previously enslaved and moved to Ohio from Virginia in 1821. In 1830, the Woodsons’ along with a group of other black men and women founded a black farming community, known as Berlin Crossroads. By 1840, the community had established its own school businesses and churches. The Berlin Crossroads Community was also involved with the Underground Railroad with many community members opening their homes to those fleeing enslavement. During that time Woodson’s father and some of her brothers became black nationalists. This greatly influenced Sarah Woodson’s as an adult. Woodson’s father believed that he was the oldest son of Sally Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson. However historical evidence does not support his belief. DNA testing in 1998 proved conclusively that the Woodson family line was not related to Jefferson and Hemings.
Sarah Woodson joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) in 1839. Her father and two of her brothers were ministers in the denomination. Education was highly valued with the Woodson family. Sarah and her sister Hannah both attended Oberlin College and were among its first African American female graduates. Sarah began her studies in 1852. She was 27 years old. Following graduation, she taught in black schools in Ohio. In 1863, Woodson gave a speech to the Ohio Colored Teachers Association. This speech was one of several she gave after the Emancipation Proclamation encouraging black youth to join political and social revolutions; encouraging them to pursue education and careers to help improve the black race.
When hired at Wilberforce, Woodson was also the first black person to teach at a historically black college or university (HBCU) and the only black person to teach an HBCU before the civil war. Because she was female, Woodson was not referred to as a “professor”. Her brother Lewis Woodson was a founder and trustee of the college. Wilberforce was founded in 1855 to educate black students. In addition to teaching Latin and English, Sarah Woodson also served as “Lady Principal and Matron”. Following the Civil War, Woodson accepted a teaching position in Hillsboro, North Carolina at a new school established for black girls by the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Woodson married, Rev. Jordan Winston Early in 1868. She was 42 years old. Early, from Franklin County, Virginia was of mixed-race ancestry and was formerly enslaved. He was a minister in the AME Church. Early joined the AME Church in 1832 and was licensed as a minister in 1836 and later ordained as a deacon and an elder. Early was previously married to Louisa Carter Early. The couple had 4 children. Louisa died in 1862. He and Sarah had no children. Sarah was very active in her husband’s ministry. In reflecting on her work in ministry alongside her husband she said,
“In the early days of the [AME] Church when its ministers were illiterate and humble, and her struggles with poverty and proscriptions were long and severe, and when it required perseverance, and patience, and fortitude, and foresight, and labor, the women were ready, with their time, their talent, their influence and their money, to dedicate all to the upbuilding of the Church. No class of persons did more to solicit and bring in the people than they.”
She continued to work as a teacher during this time. In total, she amassed over 40 years as an educator and principal. She retired as an educator in 1888 moving to Nashville, TN with her husband.
Throughout her adult life she became increasingly active in the women’s temperance movement of the 19th century. She served as national superintendent of the Colored Division of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. During her time as president she gave over 100 speeches throughout her five state region.
Woodson died in 1907 at the age of 72.