When the Confederate forces torched the city of Hampton in August 1861, one of the homes destroyed belonged to Mary Smith Peake. Peake was a free black, the daughter of a free black woman and an Englishman. As a child, she had attended a school for African Americans in the District of Columbia, where she likely learned math, reading, and writing. In 1847 Peake's family had settled in Hampton. While working as a dressmaker there before the war, Peake had secretly taught African Americans of all ages in her home. This was a brave thing to do, since teaching slaves or free blacks to read or write had been illegal in Virginia since 1831.
As the contrabands streamed into Slabtown and Grand Contraband Camp, Mary Peake began working with the American Missionary Assocation (AMA), a Christian group from the North with ties to the abolitionist, or antislavery, movement. The AMA had offered to help provide food, clothing, medical care, and other necessities to the contrabands, since the Union army, in the midst of fighting a war, was not prepared for that undertaking.
Image: Hampton University Museum Archives