Sarah Jane (Woodson) Early was born free on November 15, 1825, to freed parents who moved to Ohio around 1821. Her parents, Jemima (Riddle) and Thomas Woodson, founded the first black Methodist church west of the Allegheny Mountains in west-central Pennsylvania. Sarah was their 11th and youngest child and their 5th daughter. Her future as an educator would continue her family’s tradition of ministers and educators venturing into dangerous physical and social territory.
Sarah Woodson saw her parents and family make changes for the better in their community. Beyond the church, they helped create Berlin Crossroads, an all-African-American community of farmers. By 1840 they had helped create more churches (African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church), stores, and even a school for their neighbors. Furthermore, Berlin Crossroads contained several active stops on the Ohio Underground Railroad.
From 1852-56, Sarah attended Oberlin College and taught at schools in the area. She earned a bachelor’s degree and continued to teach at various Ohio schools, including the newly founded Wilberforce University. Even though she was there right after the university’s founding, she was denied the title of professor when she first taught there from 1859-60. She was the first female instructor at the historic black school and the only woman to teach there before the Civil War, which came less than a decade later.
From 1860-61, Woodson was made a principal of black community schools in Xenia, Ohio. It is unclear what she did during the Civil War, but she likely continued teaching and working with AME churches. By some estimates, she taught over 6000 children in community schools. In 1866, after the Civil War, Woodson was rehired to teach English and Latin by Wilberforce University, and this time she was named a professor. Later she became “Lady Principal and Matron” of the university.
In 1866, Woodson also gave a speech at the Ohio Colored Teachers Association. This speech, “Address to Youth,” urged young people to get an education and to use it as a tool for social and political change by going into science and education fields. Her goal was to raise women and men who would be seen as ladies and gentlemen, combatting the rising stereotypes of African-Americans as immoral by white standards. She continued to teach at Wilberforce, but then an opportunity arose that would take her into dangerous waters.
In 1868, she moved to Hillsboro, North Carolina, to teach at an all-girls school established by the Freedman’s Bureau. She did not stay long but married widowed AME minister Jordan Winston Early in September of that year. The couple had no children of their own, and her husband’s children may have been adults by that point. The couple moved around for 20 years, he preaching and she teaching wherever they lived. In 1888, the couple settled in Nashville, and both retired from active careers, but not from social and political work.
At some point in the couple’s travels, Sarah Early joined the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), even though it was segregated by race. Since she was elected to a four-year term as national superintendent of the Colored Division of the WCTU, we have to wonder if that was one reason the couple stopped moving around so much, though she also turned 63 years old that year. In this role she traveled around five states and gave more than 100 speeches in support of temperance. In 1893, she was elected to attend The World's Congress of Representative Women at the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago World's Fair). Early, like many women of centuries past, joined a cause alongside those who otherwise ignored or belittled them, overlooking some bigotry directed toward them if they felt it might serve a greater good. The temperance movement was one such philosophy that created odd alliances.
Even though she was an avid educator and speaker, Early’s only book was a biography of her husband, published in 1894. Life and Labors of Rev. Jordan W. Early, One of the Pioneers of African Methodism in the West and South told his story from his days as a slave through the couple’s decades of work together. Of course, by being a good wife and putting the light on her husband, she also gave us insight into her own life as well. As much as she may not have wanted praise, her work empowered women through education and encouraged them to become socially and politically active. Early died on August 15, 1907, at nearly 82 years of age.