Mary was born in 1823 in Virginia, a slave state, to an English father and a black but free mother. As a result, Mary was free, but her parents could not marry, for it was illegal for whites and blacks to marry.
When Mary was just six years old, her mother sent her to live with her aunt in what is now part of the District of Columbia, (DC) where for the next 10 years, Mary received a quality education.
But her education ended when the U.S. Congress passed a law ending education in DC for free black children, because free black people were educating slaves, which Mary had already begun to do.
At 16, Mary returned to live with her mother and eight years later her mother married a free black man, and the family resettled in Hampton, Virginia.
There Mary earned her living as a dress maker, but her heart was always in teaching and she continued to teach black children, free and slave, at the risk of her arrest. Meanwhile, Mary also founded Daughters of Zion, to assist poor and sick black people.
At the age of 28, Mary married a freed slave, Thomas Peake. They had a daughter named Hattie; they nicknamed "Daisy."
But Mary's historic work came during the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865). The Union Army occupied Hampton and fleeing slaves began arriving in large numbers to their fort.
Few of those slaves knew how to read and write, so under a large oak tree that still stands today, Mary began to teach them.
What began as a handful of students, quickly mushroomed into 50, then 100 and eventually into 900 men, women and children, all seeking an education
One mother and daughter aside from their work clothes only had one dress between them. In the morning, the daughter would wear the dress to attend school and later that day; her mother would wear the dress to attend school.
Mary wouldn't live to see the end of the Civil War, dying in 1862 from tuberculosis. But her school grew into Hampton University, which has educated thousands of people since then.
As an interesting piece of history, it was under Mary's oak tree that the Hampton black community gathered in 1863 to hear the reading of President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.
As a result, Mary's oak tree became known then as it is today, the Emancipation Oak. The U.S. government has designated it a National Historic Landmark.