Sarah Jane Woodson Early

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Sarah Jane Woodson Early

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, 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 an 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

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 about 1821 from Virginia, where they had gained freedom from slavery.[2]

They founded the first black Methodist church west of the Alleghenies.[2] In 1830 the Woodsons were among the founders of a separate black farming community called Berlin Crossroads, since defunct. The nearly two dozen families 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.[2]

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.[3] According to professional historians, this was not supported by known historical evidence.[4] 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.[5] 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. [4]

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.[2] The Woodson family emphasized education for all their children. Sarah Jane and her older sister Hannah both attended Oberlin College; Sarah Jane completed the full program and graduated in 1856, among the first African-American women college graduates.


After graduation, she taught in black community schools in Ohio for several years.[2] 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."[2] She encouraged them to follow careers in education and the sciences to lead their race.[2]

When hired in 1858 at Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Woodson became the first African-American woman college instructor.[2] She was also the first black to teach at an Historically Black College or University (HBCU) and the only black to teach at an HBCU before the Civil War. Her brother, Rev. Lewis Woodson, was a trustee and founder of the college.[2] 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. Woodson's brother Lewis Woodson was among the original 24 founding trustees. 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.[6] 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; this was the first African-American owned and operated college.[7] Sarah Jane Woodson taught English and Latin. She also served as Lady Principal and Matron.[2]

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.[8] Moving to the South was a very courageous thing for a black Ohioan to do. Millions for 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, many Oberlin graduates black and white acted on similar commitment. Oberlin was a bastion of anti-slavery ideology and activism. [9]

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.[10]

Marriage and family

On September 24, 1868, Woodson, then age 42, married the Reverend Jordan Winston Early, an AME minister who had risen from slavery. He was of mixed-race ancestry born in 1814 in Franklin County, Virginia. His mother died when he was three, and he was cared for by a maternal aunt and older woman in the slave community.[11] His masters took their slaves with them as they moved to Missouri in 1826. There a Presbyterian minister taught him to read and write (although it was illegal for slaves). As a young man, Early was "hired out" by his master to work on steamboats on the Mississippi River, traveling between St. Louis and New Orleans.[11] In 1832 Early joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States. In 1836 he was licensed as an AME preacher and later ordained as a deacon and elder. He helped plant new congregations and in 1840 helped build the first AME Church in St. Louis. In 1843 he married Louisa Carter of that city. They had eight children, four of whom survived to adulthood. The Earlys sent their children to Wilberforce University. Louisa died in 1862.[11]

Sarah and Jordan Early had no children.[2] Jordan Early retired from active minister appointments in 1888.[11] 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.[2] She served as principal of large schools in four cities as well.[8]

Reform activities

Sarah W. Early became increasingly active in the women's 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.[2]

She died in 1907.


  • Woodson's 1863 speech was collected and published by Bishop Daniel Payne, ed., The Semi-Centenary and the Retrospection of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Baltimore: Sherwood, 1868.
  • Sarah J. W. Early, The Life and Labors of Rev. J. W. Early, One of the Pioneers of African Methodism in the West and South (1894), a biography about her husband. It has been classified among the post-Civil War slave narratives, as she covered Early's rise from slavery through his decades of missionary activities for the AME church.

Legacy and honors

  • 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. [12]


  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 Univ. Press, 1969).
  2. ^ 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 29 May 2013.
  3. ^ 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, which Gordon-Reed criticized other historians for doing in her book Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ James T. Campbell, Songs of Zion, New York: Oxford University Press, 1995, pp. 259-260, accessed 13 Jan 2009
  7. ^ 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
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ 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).
  10. ^ Hairston, Eric Ashley (2013). The Ebony Column. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press. p. 121. ISBN 978-1-57233-984-2.
  11. ^ a b c d 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
  12. ^ accessed 7 June 2018. Greenwood Cemetery was established in 1888 during the height of Jim Crow segregation for the colored community by colored businessmen.

Further reading

  • 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

  • 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
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