Mary Peake Award for Excellence in Education Equity

Hi I’m Mrs. Peake. You may recognize me from the Virginia Department
of Education’s new Virginia is for Learners campaign where we’re maximizing the potential of all students. What you may not know, is who my namesake is – Mary Peake! She was a pioneer and trailblazer in education
equity, right here in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Mary Smith Kelsey was born a free woman in Norfolk Virginia
in 1823. She was educated in Alexandria, Virginia
until it was no longer legal for free people of color to be educated in the District of Columbia.
After being denied access to the classroom, young Mary returned to her native Norfolk
where she risked her freedom as she began secretly teaching runaway slaves and free
blacks to read and write. After her family moved to Hampton, Virginia,
Mary continued her secret mission to educate her people, young and old. In a time when it was illegal, Mary Peake strived to serve as an advocate for the education of her people, demonstrating
she understood the value of education and the bright future it could create. Mary recognized an open access to education
would deeply impact not only the students, but also the families and community as a whole. Although Mary initially taught under the shade
of an oak tree in Phoebus, now known as Emancipation Oak, she was later provided a cottage to serve
as her classroom. Though she grew weak with sickness, Mary continued
to teach adults and children until she died of tuberculosis at the age of 39 in 1862. The year after she died, the oak tree that
once provided shade for her outdoor lessons now served as the town hall for the first
public reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in the South. To this day, the Emancipation Oak stands tall
here on Hampton University Campus. Much like the legacy of Mary Peake, this symbolic tree has grown mighty with the passage of time, extending its reach upward and outward. The Virginia Department of Education will
honor Mary Peake’s legacy of courage and determination with an annual recognition of outstanding work
towards our shared goal of to advance equitable outcomes for all students. The Mary Peake Award for Outstanding Advancement
in Education Equity will be presented annually to leaders such as school board members, superintendents,
and legislators. In anticipation of the day when all children
will receive an excellent education. Let us all strive whole-heartedly, to continue the
noble work of Mrs. Peake. To learn more about Mary Peake, this new award,
and the Virginia is for Learners campaign, visit

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