Today we will visit with Maria Stewart.
Maria Stewart was born in Hartford, Connecticut, as Maria Miller. Her parents’ first names and occupations are not known, and 1803 is the best guess of her birth year. Maria was orphaned by age five and became an indentured servant, bound to serve a clergyman until she was fifteen. She attended Sabbath schools and read widely in the clergyman’s library, educating herself without formal education.
When she was fifteen, 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, Maria Stewart became part of Boston’s small free black middle class. She became involved in some of the institutions founded by that black community, including the Massachusetts General Colored Association, which worked for immediate abolition of slavery.
But 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.
Maria 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
Maria Stewart became connected with the work of abolitionist publisher William Lloyd Garrison when 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’s name was misspelled as “Steward” on the initial publication.)
She also began public speaking, at a time when Biblical injunctions against women teaching were interpreted to prohibit women speaking in public, especially to mixed audiences that included men. Frances Wright had created a public scandal by speaking in public in 1828; we know of no other American-born public lecturer before Maria 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, Maria Stewart spoke before a women-only audience at the African American Female Intelligence Society, one of those institutions founded by the free black community of Boston. Speaking to that female black audience, she used the Bible to defend her right to speak, and spoke on both religion and justice, advocating activism for equality. The text of the talk was published in Garrison’s newspaper on April 28, 1832.
On September 21, 1832, Maria 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. She also questioned the move to send free blacks back to Africa.
Garrison published more of her writings in his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. He published the text of her speeches there, putting them into the “Ladies Department. In 1832, Garrison published a 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, titling it Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart. These likely inspired other women to begin public speaking, and such actions became more common for Maria Stewart’s ground-breaking.
In New York, Stewart remained an activist, attending the 1837 Women’s Anti-slavery Convention. A strong advocate for literacy and for educational opportunities for African Americans and women, she supported herself teaching in public schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn, becoming an assistant to the principle of the Williamsburg School. She was also active there in a black women’s literary group. She also supported Frederick Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star, but did not write for it.
A later publication claims that she lectured when in New York; no records of any speeches survive and that claim may be a mistake or exaggeration.
Baltimore and Washington
Maria 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, DC, where she taught school again during the Civil War. One of her new friends was Elizabeth Keckley, seamstress to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and soon to publish a book of memoirs.
While continuing her teaching, she was also 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 came to Washington. Stewart also founded a neighborhood Sunday school.
In 1878, Maria Stewart discovered that a new law made her eligible for a widow’s pension, for her husband’s service in the Navy in 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.
Family Background: Maria Stewart’s parents’ names and occupations are unknown other than the last name of Miller. They had died and left her orphaned by the time she was five. She is not known to have had any siblings.
Husband, Children: Maria Stewart married James W. Stewart on August 10, 1826. He died in 1829. They had no children.
Education: attended Sabbath schools; read widely from the library of a clergyman for whom she was a servant from ages five to fifteen.
Thanks for your attention.