Biography of Maria W. Stewart, Activist and Abolitionist

1831 header of Garrison's newspaper The Liberator
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Maria W. Stewart (1803–December 17, 1879) was an American activist, abolitionist, and lecturer. A contributor to The Liberator, Stewart was active in progressive circles and influenced groups such as the New England Anti-Slavery Society. After her career as a lecturer came to an end, she worked as a schoolteacher in Washington, D.C.

Fast Facts: Maria W. Stewart

  • Known For: Stewart was an activist against racism and sexism; she was the first known American-born woman to publicly lecture to audiences that included both women and men.
  • Also Known As: Maria Miller
  • Born: 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut
  • Died: December 17, 1879 in Washington, D.C.
  • Published Works: Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart
  • Spouse: James W. Stewart (m. 1826-1829)

Early Life

Maria Stewart was born Maria Miller in Hartford, Connecticut. Her parents' names and occupations are not known, and 1803 is the best guess of her birth year. Stewart was orphaned by age 5 and became an indentured servant, bound to serve a clergyman until she was 15. She attended Sabbath schools and read widely in the clergyman's library, educating herself to make up for her lack of formal schooling.

Boston

When she was 15, Maria began supporting herself by working as a servant, continuing her education in Sabbath schools. In 1826, she married James W. Stewart, taking not only his last name but also his middle initial. James Stewart, a shipping agent, had served in the War of 1812 and had spent some time in England as a prisoner of war.

With her marriage, Stewart became part of Boston's small free black middle class. She became involved in some of the institutions of the black community, including the Massachusetts General Colored Association, which worked for the immediate abolition of slavery.

James W. Stewart died in 1829; the inheritance he left to his widow was taken from her through long legal action by the white executors of her husband's will, and she was left without funds.

Stewart had been inspired by the African-American abolitionist David Walker, and when he died six months after her husband died, she went through a religious conversion in which she became convinced that God was calling her to become a "warrior for God and for freedom" and "for the cause of oppressed Africa."

Writer and Lecturer

Stewart became connected with the work of abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison after he advertised for writings by black women. She came to his paper's office with several essays on religion, racism, and slavery, and in 1831 Garrison published her first essay, "Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality," as a pamphlet.

Stewart also began public speaking—at a time when Biblical injunctions against women teaching were interpreted to prohibit women from speaking in public—to mixed audiences that included men. Frances Wright had created a public scandal by speaking in public in 1828; historians know of no other American-born public woman lecturer before Stewart. The Grimké sisters, often credited as the first American women to lecture in public, were not to begin their speaking until 1837.

For her first address, in 1832, Stewart spoke before an audience of women at the African American Female Intelligence Society, one of the institutions founded by the free black community of Boston. Speaking to that audience, Stewart used the Bible to defend her right to lecture and spoke on both religion and justice, advocating activism for social equality. The text of the talk was published in Garrison's newspaper on April 28, 1832.

On September 21, 1832, Stewart delivered a second lecture, this time to an audience that also included men. She spoke at Franklin Hall, the site of the New England Anti-Slavery Society meetings. In her speech, she questioned whether free blacks were much more free than slaves, given the lack of opportunity and equality they had. She also questioned the move to send free blacks back to Africa.

Garrison published more of her writings in his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, under the heading the "Ladies Department." In 1832, Garrison published the second pamphlet of her writings as "Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria Stewart."

On February 27, 1833, Maria Stewart delivered her third public lecture, "African Rights and Liberty," at the African Masonic Hall. Her fourth and final Boston lecture was a "Farewell Address" on September 21, 1833, when she addressed the negative reaction that her public speaking had provoked, expressing both her dismay at having little effect and her sense of divine call to speak publicly. Then she moved to New York.

In 1835, Garrison published a pamphlet with her four speeches plus some essays and poems, "Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart," which likely inspired other women to begin public speaking.

New York

In New York, Stewart remained an activist, attending the 1837 Women's Anti-Slavery Convention. A strong advocate for literacy and educational opportunities for African-Americans and women, she supported herself by teaching in public schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn, eventually becoming an assistant to the principal of the Williamsburg School. She was also active there in a black women's literary group. Stewart supported Frederick Douglass' newspaper, The North Star, but did not write for it.

Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Stewart moved to Baltimore in 1852 or 1853, apparently after losing her teaching position in New York. There, she taught privately. In 1861, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she taught school during the Civil War. One of her friends in the city was Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave and seamstress to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley would soon publish her own memoir, "Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House."

While continuing her teaching, Stewart was appointed to head housekeeping at the Freedman's Hospital and Asylum in the 1870s. A predecessor in this position was Sojourner Truth. The hospital had become a haven for former slaves who had come to Washington. Stewart also founded a neighborhood Sunday school.

Death

In 1878, Stewart discovered that a new law made her eligible for a widow's pension for her husband's service in the Navy during the War of 1812. She used the eight dollars a month, including some retroactive payments, to republish "Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart," adding material about her life during the Civil War and also adding some letters from Garrison and others. This book was published in December 1879; on the 17th of that month, Maria Stewart died in the hospital in which she worked. She was buried in Washington's Graceland Cemetery.

Legacy

Stewart is best remembered today as a pioneering public speaker and progressive icon. Her work influenced the anti-slavery and women's rights movements of the 19th century.

Sources

  • Collins, Patricia Hill. "Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment." 1990.
  • Hine, Darlene Clark. "Black Women in America: The Early Years, 1619-1899." 1993.
  • Leeman, Richard W. "African-American Orators." 1996.
  • Richardson, Marilyn. "Maria W. Stewart, America's First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches." 1987.