Maria W. Stewart (Maria Miller) (1803 – February 6, 1880) was an African American journalist, lecturer,abolitionist, and women’s rights activist. Although her career was brief it was very striking. Maria W. Stewart started off her career as a domestic servant. She later became an activist.
She was 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 lecture about women’s rights, make a public anti-slavery speech and the first African-American woman to make public lectures. Stewart has had two pamphlets published in the Liberator, including “Religion and Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build”. In this pamphlet she advocated abolition and black autonomy. Her second pamphlet was more religious-based. In February 1833, Stewart addressed Boston’s African Masonic Lodge. This speech was a turning point in her career. In her speech she claimed that black men lacked “ambition and requisite courage.” This caused uproar amongst the audience members and she was met with “hoots, jeers, and a barrage of rotten tomatoes.” (Hine) After this negative reaction to her speech Maria W. Stewart decided to retire from giving lectures. She gave her farewell address September 1833 at a schoolroom in the African Meeting House (“Paul’s Church”). “She asserted that her advice has been rejected because she was a woman.” (Hine)
Abolitionist and feminist Maria Stewart.
Stewart spent the rest of her life in Washington, D. C., first as a schoolteacher, and later as head matron at Freedmen’s Hospital. She died at Freedmen’s Hospital in February 1880.
She was born Maria Miller, the child of free African-American parents in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1803. At the age of five she became an orphan and was sent to live with a minister and his family. Until she was fifteen, Maria was a servant in the home where she resided and was deprived of an education. When Maria turned twenty, her life took a turn for the better. Maria began to attend Sabbath School, where she developed a lifelong affinity for religious work. During her early adulthood, while attending school, Maria worked as a domestic servant for a living.
On August 10, 1826, Maria Miller and James W. Stewart, an independent shipping agent, exchanged vows before the Reverend Thomas Paul, pastor of the African Meeting House, in Boston, Massachusetts. Their marriage lasted only three years; James Stewart died in 1829. There were no children. The inheritance from her husband, a veteran of the War of 1812, was taken away by the executors of his estate. Eventually, however, her husband’s pension was restored to her when a law was passed granting pensions to widows of veterans of the War of 1812. 03
Stewart was the first American woman to speak to a mixed audience of men, women, whites and blacks, such an audience was termed a “promiscuous” audience during the early 19th century. She was the first African-American woman to lecture about women’s rights — particularly the rights of black women — religion, and social justice among black people. She was also the first African-American woman to make public anti-slavery speeches. She was 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 the religious tone and frequent quotes of Bible passages. Stewart’s speeches were direct protests against social conditions experienced by African Americans, and touched on several political issues. She was undoubtedly also influenced by African-American women preachers of the era, however, such as Jarena Lee, Julia Foote, and Amanda Berry Smith. Stewart’s protest speeches were closer in their style to those given later by Sojourner Truth. She delivered her speeches in Boston, to organizations including the African-American Female Intelligence Society.
Stewart was influenced by David Walker, a prosperous clothing shop owner, who was a well known, outspoken member of the General Colored Association. Walker was known as a leader within the African-American enclave of Boston, who wrote a very controversial piece on race relations called David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World (1829). In 1830, Walker was found dead outside of his shop, just one year after the death of Stewart’s husband. These events precipitated a “born again” spiritual experience for Stewart. She then saw her role as an advocate for “Africa, freedom and God’s cause”. She was noted for her militancy. However, Stewart was far less militant than Walker, and was resistant to advocating violence; Stewart promoted African-American exceptionalism, the special bond she saw between God and African Americans, and advocated social and moral advancement.
In 1831, before embarking on her public speaking career, Stewart published a small pamphlet entitled Religion and the pure principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on which We Build. In 1832, Stewart published a collection of religious meditations called The Meditation 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 of them in his newspaper, The Liberator, the first three individually, and later, all four together. Stewart was recruited by Garrison to write for The Liberator in 1831.
Stewart’s public speaking career lasted three years. She delivered her farewell lectures on September 21, 1833, in the school room of the African Meeting House, known then as the Belknap Street Church, and part of Boston’sBlack Heritage Trail. When she left Boston, she 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. She moved from New York to Baltimore and then to Washington, D.C., where she also taught school. While in Washington D.C., she became head matron of the Freedmen’s Hospital and Asylum in Washington, which was the medical school of Howard University. She continued to reside in Washington, D.C. until her death, which occurred in Freedmen’s Hospital on February 6, 1880. She is buried in Graceland Cemetery.
Maria Stewart delivered four public lectures that were published during her lifetime in The Liberator: Stewart’s lectures addressed women’s rights, moral and educational aspiration, occupational advancement, and the abolition of slavery, all from the position of a firm Christian. Stewart delivered the lecture Why Sit Ye Here and Die? on September 21, 1832, at Franklin Hall, Boston, to the New England Anti-Slavery Society:
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.
Stewart continues in her lecture by demanding 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!
Stewart is honored together with William Lloyd Garrison with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) 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 from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present, edited by Margaret Busby (1992).