Sarah Woodson: the first African American female college professor

Theodora Aidoo February 20, 2020
Sarah Jane Early Woodson, the first African-American woman to become a college professor - Pic Credit: Jessica Bennett/

For an African-American woman in the mid-1800, having professional ambitions could be considered an illusion.   

Notwithstanding the racial disparity, Sarah Jane Early Woodson nursed her ambition to become an educationist and eventually became the first African American female college professor.

She broke the barriers for women academics in an era when nothing was really expected from women, much less a black woman.

All through her life, she taught, gave lectures and also worked as an author, Black Nationalist, and temperance advocate.

Born on November 15, 1825, in Chillicothe, Ohio to Jemima and Thomas Woodson, founders of the first black Methodist church of west of the Alleghenies. She attended Oberlin College and graduated in 1856 as one of the first Black women to graduate college.

While in school, she taught at several schools founded by the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church and after graduating she would go on to teach at various schools in Ohio. Later in 1858, Woodson was employed at Wilberforce University as an English and Latin professor.

She was the first black woman to teach at a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) and the only black instructor to teach at an HBCU before the Civil War.

Woodson went on to teach at a school established for black girls by the Freedmen’s Bureau in Hillsboro, North Carolina, after the civil war in 1868. Beyond academia, she had an activist spirit.

She was very active in the women’s temperance movement, one of the numerous reform activities of the nineteenth century.

At 42, Woodson married Minister Jordan Winston Early who was one of the pioneers of African Methodism in the West and South and the couple moved to Tennessee where she took up a teaching job.

Woodson taught at several schools wherever her husband preached. She served as the principal in four cities, giving over 100 lectures.

For her knowledge and efforts as an educator, she was elected for a four-year term as national superintendent of the Colored Division of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union in 1888.

In 1894, she wrote a biography about her husband detailing his rise from slavery through his decades of missionary activities for the AME church. The biography has been classified among the post-Civil War slave narratives.

For educating herself and passionately committed to educating others no matter where she found herself, Woodson paved the way for black educators.  

She was one of five Black women who were invited to speak at the World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago in 1893.

In 1907, Sarah Jane Early Woodson passed away.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: February 20, 2020


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