Sarah Jane Woodson Early

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Sarah Jane Woodson Early
Sarah Jane Woodson Early.png
BornNovember 15, 1825
Ross County, OH
DiedAugust 15, 1907 (aged 82)
EducationOberlin College, 1852
OccupationCollege educator

Principal Superintendent


Sarah Jane Woodson Early, born Sarah Jane Woodson (November 15, 1825 – August 1907), was an American educator, black nationalist, temperance activist and author. A graduate of Oberlin College, where she majored in classics, she was hired at Wilberforce University in 1858 as the first black woman college instructor and she was the first black American to teach at a historically black college or university (HBCU).[1]

She also taught for many years in community schools. After marrying in 1868 and moving to Tennessee with her minister husband Jordan Winston Early, she was principal of schools in four cities. Early served as national superintendent (1888–1892) of the black division of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and gave more than 100 lectures across five states. She wrote a biography of her husband and his rise from slavery that is included among postwar slave narratives.

Early life and education[edit]

Sarah Jane Woodson, the fifth daughter and youngest child of eleven of Jemima (Riddle) and Thomas Woodson (1790–1879), was born free in Chillicothe, Ohio, on November 15, 1825. Her parents had moved to the free state of Ohio in 1820 after her father purchased the whole family's freedom for $900.[2] They left Greenbrier County, Virginia, where the Woodsons were one of only two free black families in the entire county. [3]

They founded the first black Methodist church west of the Alleghenies.[3] In 1830 the Woodsons were among the founders of a separate black farming community called Berlin Crossroads, since defunct. The nearly two dozen families living there by 1840 established their own school, stores and churches. Her father and some brothers became black nationalists, which influenced Sarah Woodson's activities as an adult.[3] Additionally, Berlin Crossroads was a prominent spot on the Underground Rail Road, with the Woodson's opening their home to many runaway slaves [4].

Her father believed that he was the oldest son of Sally Hemings and President Thomas Jefferson; this tradition became part of the family's oral history.[5] According to professional historians, this was not supported by known historical evidence.[6] In 1998 DNA testing of descendants of the Jefferson, Hemings and Woodson male lines showed conclusively that there was no match between the Jefferson and Woodson lines; the Woodson male line did show western European paternal ancestry.[7] According to historians at Monticello, no documents support the claim that Woodson was Hemings' first child, as he appeared to have been born before any known child of hers. Professional historians have ignored the erasure of the name of a male slave, who was born in 1790, whose named was recorded in Jefferson's Farm Book by Thomas Jefferson and the survival of at least one letter of the name of the mother of the son in the Farm Book, as well. Thomas Woodson was born in 1790 and this time also matches the year of birth for the son named Tom attributed to Sally Hemings by newsman James Callender.[6]

Woodson showed an interest in education at an early age, memorizing every hymn sung by her family at age three and lengthy passages of the Bible at the age of five.[8] In 1839 Sarah Woodson joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), founded in 1816 as the first independent black denomination in the United States. Her brothers, Lewis, Thomas, and John were ministers in the church.[3] The Woodson family emphasized education for all their children. Sarah Jane and her older sister Hannah both enrolled in Oberlin College in 1852. Sarah Jane completed the collegiate program, with a degree in Classical Studies,[1] while Hannah enrolled in the preparatory program and left after about a year.[9] Sarah graduated in 1856, among the first African-American women college graduates. Oberlin was one of the schools recommended by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church.[2]


After graduation, she taught in black community schools in Ohio for several years and was the first principal at a public school in Xenia, Ohio.[3][10] In 1863 she gave "Address to Youth," to the Ohio Colored Teachers Association, one of a number of speeches she gave following the Emancipation Proclamation to urge African-American youth to join the "political and social revolutions."[3] She encouraged them to follow careers in education and the sciences to lead their race.[3]

When hired in 1858 at Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Woodson became the first African-American woman college instructor.[3] While there she was appointed "Preceptress of English and Latin and Lady Principal and Matron,"[2] making her a renowned teacher of English and Latin0.[11] She was also the first African-American to teach at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) and the only black woman to teach at an HBCU before the Civil War. Her brother, Rev. Lewis Woodson, was a trustee and founder of the college.[3] It had been established in 1855 to educate black youth, as a collaboration between the white and black leaders of the Cincinnati Methodist conference and the AME Church in Ohio, respectively. Wilberforce closed for two years during the Civil War because of finances. It lost most of its nearly 200 subscription students at the beginning of the war, as they were mostly mixed-race children of wealthy planters from the South, who withdrew them at that time.[12] During the war, the Cincinnati Methodist Conference could not offer its previous level of financial support, as it was called to care for soldiers and families.

The AME Church purchased the college and reopened it in 1863; this was the first African-American owned and operated college.[13] She also served as Lady Principal and Matron.[3]She was later re-hired by the university in 1866 following a nearly one year closure because of the civil war.[14]

After the Civil War, in 1868, Woodson began teaching in a new school for black girls established by the Freedmen's Bureau in Hillsboro, North Carolina.[15] Though millions of black Southerners began to move to the North after the Civil War to escape violence in the South, Woodson was determined to educate the children of the freedmen. She was not alone, as many Oberlin alumni of both races, due to the school's commitment to anti-slavery ideology and activism, acted on similar commitments.[16]

In 1888, Woodson Early was elected for a four-year term as national superintendent of the Colored Division of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.[17] In 1893, Woodson spoke at the World's Congress of Representative Women in Chicago. Her speech was entitled "The Organized Efforts of the Colored Women of the South to Improve Their Condition." Woodson was one of five African-American women invited to speak at this event, along with: Fannie Barrier Williams, Anna Julia Cooper, Hallie Quinn Brown, and Fanny Jackson Coppin.[18]

Her career ended with her death at the age of 82 on August 15, 1907.[19]

Marriage and family[edit]

On September 24, 1868, Woodson, then aged 42, married the Reverend Jordan Winston Early, an AME minister who had risen from slavery. Sarah and Jordan Early had no children.[3] Jordan Early retired from active minister appointments in 1888.[20] Sarah Early helped her husband with his ministries, and also taught community schools. In total, she taught school for nearly four decades, as she believed education was critical for the advancement of the race.[3] She served as principal of large schools in four cities as well.[15]

Reform activities[edit]

Sarah W. Early became increasingly active in the Women's Christian Temperance Movement, one of numerous reform activities of the nineteenth century. In 1888 she was elected for a four-year term as national superintendent of the Colored Division of the Women's Christian Temperance Union; during her tenure, Early traveled frequently and gave more than 100 speeches to groups throughout a five-state region.[3] Sarah W. Early became superintendent of the Colored Division within the WTCU. She was also a spokesperson for the Prohibition Party in Tennessee [3]


Legacy and honors[edit]

  • 1888, Woodson Early was appointed superintendent of the Colored Division of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).[21]
  • 1893, Woodson Early was named "Representative Woman of the Year" at the Chicago World's Fair (World's Columbian Exposition). As per Sarah J. W. Early was buried at the Greenwood Cemetery, Nashville, TN.[22]


  1. ^ She was not, however, the first black to teach at the college level. Three black American men taught at Central New York College prior to the Civil War, including George B. Vashon, a graduate of Oberlin College. The school was established by Gerit Smith and went out of operation just before the Civil War began. Wilberforce University, where Woodson taught continues in operation (as of 2018). Benjamin Quarles, Black Abolitionists, New York/London: Oxford University Press, 1969.
  2. ^ a b Lawson, Ellen NicKenzie (1984). The Three Sarahs: Documents of Antebellum Black College Women. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press. p. 157. ISBN 0-88946-536-3.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Foner, Philip Sheldon; Branham, Robert James, eds. (1998). Lift every voice: African American oratory, 1787–1900. Studies in rhetoric and communication. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. pp. 384–385. ISBN 978-0-8173-0906-0. Retrieved May 29, 2013.
  4. ^ "Sarah Jane Woodson Early". History of American Women. 2015-03-29. Retrieved 2019-04-18.
  5. ^ Woodson, Byron W., A President in the Family, Praeger, 2001, p. 86. Over two hundred years after newspaper reports appeared in Virginia newspapers indicating the existence of Sally Hemings' son named Tom, allegedly the son of Thomas Jefferson, professional historians such as Annette Gordon-Reed have ignored the existence of some of the newspaper reports and critically important content of the ones that they have acknowledged. Gordon-Reed and others are "hiding the balls", a practice that Gordon-Reed criticized other historians for doing in her book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
  6. ^ a b "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account", Plantation & Slvery, Monticello, Quote: "The DNA study found no link between the descendants of Field Jefferson [tested because Thomas Jefferson had no direct male descendants] and Thomas C. Woodson... But there is no indication in Jefferson's records of a child born to Hemings before 1795, and there are no known documents to support that Thomas Woodson was Hemings' first child.", accessed 6 March 2011. Woodson, A President in the Family, 215–17.
  7. ^ Foster, EA; Jobling, MA; Taylor, PG; Donnelly, P; De Knijff, P; Mieremet, R; Zerjal, T; Tyler-Smith, C; et al. (1998). "Jefferson fathered slave's last child" (PDF). Nature. 396 (6706): 27–28. doi:10.1038/23835. PMID 9817200. S2CID 4424562.
  8. ^ Monroe Alphus Majors, 1864–1960; in Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities(Jackson, TN: M.V. Lynk Publishing House, 1893), 102-103
  9. ^ Lawson, Ellen NicKenzie (1984). The Three Sarahs: Documentation of Antebellum Black College Women. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press. p. 156. ISBN 0-88946-536-3.
  10. ^ "Noted Negro Women: Their Triumphs and Activities | Alexander Street, a ProQuest Company". Retrieved 2019-04-18.
  11. ^ "Pen Pictures of Pioneers of Wilberforce | Alexander Street, a ProQuest Company". Retrieved 2019-04-18.
  12. ^ James T. Campbell, Songs of Zion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 259-260, accessed 13 Jan 2009
  13. ^ Horace Talbert, "The Sons of Allen: Together with a Sketch of the Rise and Progress of Wilberforce University, Wilberforce, Ohio", 1906, in Documenting the South, 2000, University of North Carolina, accessed 25 Jul 2008
  14. ^ "Sarah Jane Woodson Early". History of American Women. 2015-03-29. Retrieved 2019-04-18.
  15. ^ a b Jessie+Carney+Smith%22&source=gbs_navlinks Jessie Carney Smith, "Sarah Jane Woodson Early", Notable Black American Women, VNR AG, 1996, pp. 198–200, accessed 6 March 2011
  16. ^ Nat Brandt, The Town That Started the Civil War: The True Story of the Community That Stood Up to Slavery and Changed a Nation Forever, (Crystal Lke, IL, Delta, 1991).
  17. ^ "Sarah Jane Early Woodson: First African-American Woman to Become a University Professor". Black Then. Retrieved 2019-04-18.
  18. ^ Hairston, Eric Ashley (2013). The Ebony Column. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. p. 121. ISBN 978-1-57233-984-2.
  19. ^ "Sarah Jane Early". geni_family_tree. Retrieved 2019-04-18.
  20. ^ Sarah J. W. Early, Life and Labors of Rev. Jordan W. Early, One of the Pioneers of African Methodism in the West and South, Nashville: Publishing House A.M.E. Church Sunday School Union, 1894, carried at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, accessed 6 March 2011
  21. ^ "Sarah Jane Early fought for education for Black women". African American Registry. Retrieved 2019-04-18.
  22. ^, accessed June 7, 2018. Greenwood Cemetery was established in 1888 during the height of Jim Crow segregation for the colored community by colored businessmen.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ellen N. Lawson, "Sarah Woodson Early: Nineteenth Century Black Nationalist 'Sister'," Umoja: A Scholarly Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 5 (Summer 1981), pp. 15–26
  • Ellen Lawson and Marlene Merrill, The Three Sarahs: Documents of Antebellum Black College Women, Edwin Mellen Press, 1984
  • Byron W. Woodson Sr., A President in the Family, Thomas Jefferson Sally Hemings and Thomas Woodson, (Westport CT, Praeger, 2001)

External links[edit]