In the mid-1800’s, it wasn’t easy to be an African-American woman with professional aspirations. But Sarah Jane Woodson Early wasn’t just a hard-working and multi-tasking professional woman—she was a woman ahead of her time. Educating was her life’s passion and in 1858, she became the first African American female college professor. Throughout her life she taught, gave lectures and also worked as an author, black nationalist, and temperance advocate.
Born a free woman in Chillicothe, OH, on Nov. 15, 1825, Early’s upbringing served as the basis for her activist and academic spirit. Her parents, Thomas and Jemima Woodson, founded the first black Methodist church of west of the Alleghenies. They also founded Berlin Crossroads, a separate black farming community. Although there was never any supporting historical evidence, her father believed he was the oldest son of Sally Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson.
Early graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio at a time when her options for education were limited between two colleges. She was also one of the first black women to earn a college degree. Even in college she had a zeal for teaching. She taught at several schools founded by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church while in school. In 1858, she was hired at Wilberforce College, an AME founded church and the first college to be African-American owned and operated. Her brother, Lewis Woodson, was one of the original 24 founding trustees.
During the Civil War, Wilberforce closed for nearly a year and welcomed her back on its faculty as an English and Latin professor when it reopened its doors. After her years of teaching at Wilberforce, she left to teach at an African-American girls’ school in North Carolina in 1868. This year was not only a year for academic change for Early, but also a year of personal change as she also married Minister Jordan Winston Early. Her husband, one of the pioneers of African Methodism in the West and South, served as one of the subjects of her books with her biographic account of his rise from slavery. The couple moved to Tennessee where Early found a job as a teacher in her new environment. For the next twenty years of her career, Early taught wherever her husband preached. Her resume included teaching in several community schools, serving as the principle in four cities and giving over 100 lectures in five states. In addition, she was the national superintendent of the black division of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Early’s legacy is not a singular story of academic success; but an example to all black women with dreams of teaching. She is a black woman who didn’t stop with achieving her own education, instead she always strove to educate others no matter where she lived. Early broke the barriers for women academics in a time when there wasn’t much expected from women, much less a black woman. These days as the number of black women enrolled in college grows and black women professionals increase in the work-field, she serves as a reminder that whatever barriers black women may face, they can and will overcome them.