Mary was born free in Norfolk, Virginia. As a teenager, Mary secretly taught enslaved as well as free African Americans to read and write, which was prohibited by law. In 181, Mary Smith (whose maiden name was Kelsey) married Thomas Peake, a freed slave who worked in the merchant marines.
In the fall of 1861, Mary Smith Peake, the first black teacher hired by the American Missionary Association, began teaching “contrabands” to read and write under the limbs of a live oak tree near Fort Monroe, in what is now the community of Phoebus.
In 1863, this same oak tree was the site of the first southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Just five years later, the American Missionary Association founded what would become Hampton University on the site of Peake’s outdoor classroom.
The Emancipation Oak, as it came to be known, still grows on the grounds of Hampton University, a historically black college. Today, Hampton College traces its roots to Mary Smith Peake. Mary was seriously ill and died of Tuberculous on George Washington's Birthday, February 22nd.