Maria W. Stewart

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Maria W. Stewart (Maria Miller) (1803 – February 6, 1880) was an African-American domestic servant who became a journalist, lecturer, abolitionist, and women's rights activist. The first American woman to speak to a mixed audience of men and women, whites and black, she was also the first African-American woman to make public lectures, as well as to lecture about women’s rights and make a public anti-slavery speech.

The Liberator published two pamphlets by Stewart: Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build (which advocated abolition and black autonomy) in 1931, and another of religious meditations, Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria Stewart (1932). In February 1833, she addressed Boston’s African Masonic Lodge, which soon ended her brief lecturing career. Her claim that black men lacked "ambition and requisite courage" caused an uproar among the audience, and Stewart decided to retire from giving lectures. Seven months later, she gave a farewell address at a schoolroom in the African Meeting House ("Paul's Church"). Stewart then moved to New York, then to Baltimore, and finally Washington, DC, where she worked as a schoolteacher, and then as head matron at Freedmen's Hospital, where she ultimately died.

Early life

She was born Maria Miller, the child of free African-American parents in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1803. At the age of five Maria lost both parents and was sent to live with a minister and his family. She continued as a servant in that home until she was 15, without receiving any formal education. When Maria turned 20, she began to attend Sabbath School, and developed a lifelong affinity for religious work. While attending that school, she continued to work as a domestic servant.

On August 10, 1826, Maria Miller married James W. Stewart, an independent shipping agent, before the Reverend Thomas Paul, pastor of the African Meeting House, in Boston, Massachusetts. Their marriage lasted only three years and produced no children; James Stewart died in 1829. The executors of his estate deprived Maria as his widow of any inheritance. However, James had served in the War of 1812 and eventually a law was passed allowing veterans' widows their husbands' pensions.[1]

Public speaking

Stewart was the first American woman to speak to a mixed audience of men, women, whites and blacks (termed a "promiscuous" audience during the early 19th century).[2] The first African-American woman to lecture about women’s rights — Stewart focused particularly on the rights of black women — religion, and social justice among black people. She also became the first African-American woman to make public anti-slavery speeches.[3] One of the first African-American women to make public lectures for which there are still surviving copies, Stewart referred to her public lectures as "speeches" and not "sermons", despite their religious tone and frequent Biblical quotes. African-American women preachers of the era, such as Jarena Lee, Julia Foote and Amanda Berry Smith, undoubtedly influenced Stewart, and Sojourner Truth later used a similar style in her public lectures.[4] Stewart delivered her speeches in Boston, to organizations including the African-American Female Intelligence Society.[5]

David Walker, a prosperous clothing shop owner, who was a well known, outspoken member of the General Colored Association, also influenced Stewart. A leader within Boston's African-American enclave, he wrote a very controversial piece on race relations entitled David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829). In 1830, he was found dead outside of his shop, just one year after Stewart's husband had died. These events precipitated a "born again" spiritual experience for Stewart. She became a vocal and militant advocate for "Africa, freedom and God's cause".[3] However, she was far less militant than Walker, and resisted advocating violence. Instead, Stewart enunciated African-American exceptionalism, the special bond she saw between God and African Americans, and advocated social and moral advancement, even as she vocally protested against social conditions African Americans experienced, and touched on several political issues.

In 1831, before her public speaking career began, Stewart published a small pamphlet entitled Religion and the pure principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on which We Build. In 1832, she published a collection of religious meditations, Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria Stewart. She wrote and delivered four lectures between 1832 and 1833. While her speeches were daring and not well received, William Lloyd Garrison, a friend and the central figure of the anti-slavery movement, published all four in his newspaper, The Liberator: the first three individually, and later, all four together. Garrison also recruited Stewart to write for The Liberator in 1831.[3]

Stewart’s public speaking career lasted three years. She delivered her farewell lectures on September 21, 1833, in the schoolroom of the African Meeting House, known then as the Belknap Street Church, and part of Boston's Black Heritage Trail. Upon leaving Boston, she first moved to New York, where she published her collected works in 1835. She taught school and participated in the abolitionist movement, as well as literary organization. Stewart then moved to Baltimore and eventually to Washington, D.C., where she also taught school before becoming head matron of the Freedmen's Hospital and Asylum in Washington, which was the medical school of Howard University. She ultimately died at that hospital.


Maria Stewart delivered four public lectures that The Liberator published during her lifetime, addressing women's rights, moral and educational aspiration, occupational advancement, and the abolition of slavery.

She delivered the lecture "Why Sit Ye Here and Die?" on September 21, 1832, at Franklin Hall, Boston, to the New England Anti-Slavery Society. She demanded equal rights for African-American women:

I have asked several individuals of my sex, who transact business for themselves, if providing our girls were to give them the most satisfactory references, they would not be willing to grant them an equal opportunity with others? Their reply has been—for their own part, they had no objection; but as it was not the custom, were they to take them into their employ, they would be in danger of losing the public patronage.

And such is the powerful force of prejudice. Let our girls possess what amiable qualities of soul they may; let their characters be fair and spotless as innocence itself; let their natural taste and ingenuity be what they may; it is impossible for scarce an individual of them to rise above the condition of servants. Ah! why is this cruel and unfeeling distinction? Is it merely because God has made our complexion to vary? If it be, O shame to soft, relenting humanity! "Tell it not in Gath! publish it not in the streets of Askelon!" Yet, after all, methinks were the American free people of color to turn their attention more assiduously to moral worth and intellectual improvement, this would be the result: prejudice would gradually diminish, and the whites would be compelled to say, unloose those fetters!

In the same speech Stewart emphasized that African-American women were not so different from African-American men:

Look at many of the most worthy and interesting of us doomed to spend our lives in gentlemen’s kitchens. Look at our young men, smart, active and energetic, with souls filled with ambitious fire; if they look forward, alas! what are their prospects? They can be nothing but the humblest laborers, on account of their dark complexions...

She continued the theme that African Americans were subjected not only to Southern slavery but to Northern racism and economic structures:

I have heard much respecting the horrors of slavery; but may Heaven forbid that the generality of my color throughout these United States should experience any more of its horrors than to be a servant of servants, or hewers of wood and drawers of water! Tell us no more of southern slavery; for with few exceptions, although I may be very erroneous in my opinion, yet I consider our condition but little better than that.

Notably, Stewart critiqued Northern treatment of African Americans at a meeting in which Northerners gathered to criticize and plan action against Southern treatment of African Americans. She challenged the supposed dichotomy between the inhumane enslavement of the South and the normal proceedings of capitalism in the North, arguing that the relegation of African Americans to service jobs was also a great injustice and waste of human potential. In doing so, she anticipated arguments about the intersection of racism, capitalism, and sexism that would later be advanced by womanist thinkers.

Her Christian faith strongly influenced Stewart. She often cited Biblical influences and the Holy Spirit, and implicitly critiqued societal failure to educate her and others like her:

Yet, after all, methinks there are no chains so galling as the chains of ignorance—no fetters so binding as those that bind the soul, and exclude it from the vast field of useful and scientific knowledge. O, had I received the advantages of early education, my ideas would, ere now, have expanded far and wide; but, alas! I possess nothing but moral capability—no teachings but the teachings of the Holy spirit.

Death and legacy

Stewart died at Freedmen's Hospital on February 6, 1880. She was buried in Graceland Cemetery,[6] which was closed two decades later after extensive litigation and most of the land used by the Washington Electric Railway. The liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) remembers Maria Stewart annually, together with William Lloyd Garrison, on December 17.

Stewart's speech inspired the title of Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent, edited by Margaret Busby (1992).

See also

Works by Stewart

Works about Stewart

  • Marilyn Richardson, Maria W. Stewart: America's First Black Woman Political Writer, Indiana University Press, 1988.
  • Marilyn Richardson, "Maria W. Stewart," in Feintuch, Burt, and David H. Watters (eds), The Encyclopedia Of New England: The Culture and History of an American Region, Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Marilyn Richardson, "Maria. W. Stewart", Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 379–380.
  • Marilyn Richardson, "'What If I Am A Woman?' Maria W. Stewart's Defense of Black Women's Political Activism", in Donald M. Jacobs (ed.), Courage and Conscience: Black & White Abolitionists in Boston, Indiana University Press, 1993.


  1. Ashira Adwoa, "Maria W. Stewart", African American (December 13, 2010).
  2. Page, Yolanda Williams (2007). Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers, Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. p. 536. ISBN 9780313341236.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Smith, Jessie Carney (2003). Black Firsts: 4,000 Ground-Breaking and Pioneering Historical Events. Visible Ink Press. p. 116. ISBN 9781578591428.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Cooper, Valerie C. (2011). Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans. University of Virginia Press. p. 16. ISBN 9780813931883.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Fulton, DoVeanna S. (2007). Junius P. Rodriguez, ed. Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, And Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 2. ABC-CLIO. p. 463. ISBN 9781851095445.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Maria W Stewart: District of Columbia Deaths and Burials, 1840-1964", FamilySearch, accessed June 4, 2012.

External links