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Portrait of Mary Hudson Onley

T. A. Charron

Pioneering educator and community activist Mary Hudson Onley (1889-1980) was one of the first African American graduates of Bridgewater State Normal School in 1912. A 1908 New Bedford High School graduate, Mary taught in New Bedford public elementary schools for 19 years. She was one of the founders of the Martha Briggs Literary Club and a member of the Martha Briggs Educational Club.

Pioneering educator and community activist Mary Hudson Onley (1889-1980) was a graduate of the Class of 1912 at Bridgewater State Normal School. Born in 1889 in New Bedford, the daughter of Lavania F. Powell of Boston and William G. Onley of New Bedford, Ms. Hudson Onley graduated from New Bedford High School in 1908 and entered Bridgewater that September. She was one of the four exceptional students of color who completed a 4-year course of study graduating in 1912.

Following her graduation, Ms. Onley was hired by the New Bedford school system to teach elementary education in the public schools for 19 years – at the Wood, Winslow, and Ashley Grammar Schools. She later married Rev. Arthur J. Spratley, pastor of the Union Baptist Church in New Bedford, and became active in church work. She held the post of president of the Women’s Auxiliary of the United Baptist Convention of Massachusetts and Rhode Island for many years. She also was one of the founders of the Martha Briggs Literary Club and a member of the Martha Briggs Educational Club of New Bedford.

After several years in New Bedford, the Spratleys moved to Boston, where Rev. Spratley became one of the founders of Concord Baptist Church. Mrs. Spratley resumed teaching in Boston public schools. She was very active in numerous civic groups, such as the League of Women for Community Service, Boston Teacher’s Alliance, Boston Elementary Teachers Club and the Delta Omicron Chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority.

After the death of her husband in the early 1960s, Mrs. Spratley returned to New Bedford, the home of her grandparents, who had been active in the Underground Railroad and the abolitionist movement. She died in 1980 at the age of 91. Mary had a daughter, Joan M. Spratley Fisher of St. Louis, who was formerly a commissioner of the Massachusetts Hall of Black Achievement. In 1987, the Hall of Black Achievement was established, and the first formal inductions took place in February 1988. Each year, the hall presents the Mary Hudson Onley Achievement Award and Onley Medallion to a living individual who has made significant contributions to society or within his or her field. The first Mary Hudson Onley award was presented to Henry Hampton, Executive Producer of the award-winning documentary Eyes on the Prize, a history of the modern civil rights movement.

Lee Blake, New Bedford Historical Society

Information from

  • Hayden, Robert C. African-Americans and Cape Verdean-Americans in New Bedford: A History of Community and Achievement. Select Publications, 1993.

  • “Mary Hudson Onley.” Massachusetts Hall of Black Achievement, Item 12, Bridgewater State University, 2008,

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