Biography of Maria W. Stewart, Groundbreaking Lecturer and Activist

She was also one of the country's earliest proponents of women's rights

1831 header of Garrison's newspaper The Liberator
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Maria W. Stewart (1803–Dec. 17, 1879) was a North American 19th-century Black activist and lecturer. The first United States-born woman of any race to give a political speech in public, she predated—and greatly influenced—later Black activists and thinkers such as Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. A contributor to The Liberator, Stewart was active in progressive circles and also influenced groups such as the New England Anti-Slavery Society.

As an early advocate of women's rights in the United States, she also predated such famed suffragists as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who were only in their childhood and teen years when Stewart burst onto the scene. Stewart wrote and spoke with a flourish of pen and tongue that easily rivaled the eloquence of later Black activists and suffragettes, and even a young Baptist minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who would come to national prominence well over a century later. Yet, due to discrimination and racial prejudice, Stewart spent decades in poverty before emerging to revise and catalog her speeches and writings and pen a brief autobiography, which are all accessible to this day. Stewart's public speaking career lasted only about one year—and her writing career less than three years—but through her efforts, she helped ignite the North American 19th-century Black activist movement in the United States.

Fast Facts: Maria W. Stewart

  • Known For: Stewart was an activist against racism and sexism; she was the first known United States-born woman to publicly lecture to audiences of all genders.
  • Also Known As: Maria Miller
  • Born: 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut
  • Died: Dec. 17, 1879, in Washington, D.C.
  • Published Works: "Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart," "Religion and the Pure Principals of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build," "The Negro's Complaint"
  • Spouse: James W. Stewart (m. 1826–1829)
  • Notable Quote: “Our souls are fired with the same love of liberty and independence with which your souls are fired…we are not afraid of them that kill the body and after that can do no more.”

Early Life

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 forced into indentured servitude, bound to serve a clergyman until she was 15. She attended Sabbath schools and read widely in the clergyman's library, educating herself despite being barred from access to formal schooling.

Boston

When she was 15, Stewart 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.

James W. Stewart died in 1829; the inheritance he left to Maria Stewart 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 North American 19th-century Black activist David Walker, who died one year after her husband. Walker died of mysterious circumstances and some of his contemporaries believed he was poisoned. A group of men in Georgia—a pro-slavery state—had offered a $10,000 reward for the capture of Walker, or $1,000 for his murder ($280,000 and $28,000, respectively in 2020 dollars.)

Black historian and former professor, Marylyn Richardson, in her book, "Maria W. Stewart, America's First Black Woman Political Writer," explained that Walker's contemporaries felt he may have been poisoned as a retaliation for his vocal advocacy for the rights of Black people:

"The cause of Walker's death was investigated and debated without resolution by his contemporaries and remains a mystery to this day."

After Walker's death, Stewart felt it was her duty to carry on what was then the budding North American 19-century Black activist movement. 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."

Stewart became connected with the work of anti-enslavement activist 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 the system of enslavement, and in 1831 Garrison published her first essay, "Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality," as a pamphlet.

Public Speeches

Stewart also began public speaking—at a time when biblical injunctions against women teaching were interpreted to prohibit women from speaking in public—to gender diverse audiences. Frances Wright, a White woman anti-enslavement activist who had been born in Scotland, had created a public scandal by speaking in public in 1828; historians know of no other public woman lecturer born in the United States of America before Stewart, though the erasure of Native American history must be considered. The Grimké sisters, often credited as the first American women to lecture in public, were not to begin their speaking until 1837.

In 1832, Stewart delivered perhaps her most famous lecture—the second of her four talks—to a gender-diverse audience. She spoke at Franklin Hall, the site of the New England Anti-Slavery Society meetings. In her speech, she questioned whether free Black people were much more free than enslaved Black people, given the lack of opportunity and equality they had. Stewart spoke against the so-called "colonization plan, a scheme at the time to expatriate certain Black Americans to West Africa." As Professor Richardson explained in her book, Stewart started her speech with these words:

"Why sit ye here and die. If we say we will go to a foreign land, the famine and the pestilence are there and there we shall die. If we sit here, we shall die. Come let us plead our case before the whites: if they save us alive, we shall live—and if they kill us, we shall but die."

Stewart embraced her seminal role as one of the nation's first advocates for both the rights of Black people and of women when she said in her very next sentence, framed in religious terminology:

"Methinks I heard a spiritual interrogation—'Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman? And my heart made this reply—'If it is they will, be it even so, Lord Jesus!' "

In her four speeches, Stewart talked about the inequality of opportunity open to Black Americans. In words that foreshadowed the Black Lives Matter movement nearly two centuries later, Stewart wrote in one of several articles she published at the same time she was delivering her speeches:

"Look at our young men—smart, active, energetic, with souls filled with ambitious fire....They can be nothing but the humblest laborers, on account of their dark complexion."

Often couched in religious terminology, Stewart's speeches and writing emphasized the need for equal education for Black people, and she often stressed the need to speak out and demand equal rights for Black people in the United States. But even among her contemporaries in the small Black community in Boston, Stewart's speeches and writings were met with opposition. Many felt that Stewart should not speak out so forcefully advocating the rights of Black people and that as a woman, she should not speak publicly at all. Maggie MacLean, in an article published on The Ohio State University's Department of History website, explained the negative reaction Stewart encountered:

"Stewart was condemned for having the audacity to speak onstage. In the words of African American historian William C. Nell, writing about Stewart in the 1850s, she 'encountered an opposition even from her Boston circle of friends, that would have dampened the ardor of most women.' "

New York, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.

Stewart moved to and lived in New York for about 20 years starting 1833, during which time she taught public school and eventually became an assistant principal in Williamsburg, Long Island. She never spoke publicly in New York, or in subsequent years and for the rest of her life. In 1852 or 1853, Stewart moved to Baltimore where 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 formerly enslaved person, and tailor 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 formerly enslaved people 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 surviving spouse's pension for her husband's service in the Navy during the War of 1812. She used the $8 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, 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-enslavement and women's rights movements of the 19th century. But her influence, particularly on Black thinkers and activists, reverberated through the decades after she gave her four lectures and even after her death. The National Park Service wrote on its website about Stewart's towering influence:

"Abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Maria W. Stewart was....the first Black American woman to write and publish a political manifesto. Her calls for Black people to resist slavery, oppression, and exploitation were radical. Stewart’s thinking and speaking style influenced Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper."

MacLean, in the article on The Ohio State University's Department of History website, agreed, stating:

"Maria Stewart’s essays and speeches presented original ideas that were to become central to the struggles for African American freedom, human rights and women’s rights. In this she was a clear forerunner to Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and generations of the most influential African American activists and political thinkers. Many of her ideas were so far ahead of their time that they remain relevant more than 180 years later."

Additional References

  • 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.
  • MacLean, Maggie. “Maria Stewart.” EHISTORY, ehistory.osu.edu.
  • Maria W. Stewart.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior.
  • Richardson, Marilyn. "Maria W. Stewart, America's First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches." 1987.
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  1. Inflation Rate between 1829-2020: Inflation Calculator.” Value of 1829 Dollars Today | Inflation Calculator, officialdata.org.