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 College in 1858 as the first African-American woman college instructor.
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.
Sarah Jane Woodson, the fifth daughter and youngest child of eleven of Jemima (Riddle) and Thomas C. 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.
They founded the first black Methodist church west of the Alleghenies. In 1830 the Woodsons were among 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.
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. It was not supported by known historical evidence. 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. 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.
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 father and two older brothers, Lewis and John P., were ministers in the church. 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. 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.” She encouraged them to follow careers in education and the sciences to lead their race.
When hired in 1858 at Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Woodson became the first African-American woman college instructor. Her brother Rev. Lewis Woodson was a trustee and founder of the college. 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. Sarah’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. 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. Sarah Jane Woodson taught English and Latin. She also served as Lady Principal and Matron.
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.
On September 24, 1868 Woodson at the age of 43 married the Reverend Jordan Winston Early, an AME minister who rose from slavery. Sarah and Jordan Early had no children.
Until his death in 1903, Sarah Early had helped her husband with his ministries in numerous towns in Tennessee, where she also taught community schools. She taught school for nearly four decades, as she believed education was critical for the advancement of the race.She served as principal of large schools in four cities as well.
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.
She died in 1907.