Stewart, Maria W. (1803–1879)

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Stewart, Maria W. (1803–1879)

African-American activist who was the first American-born woman to speak on political themes to audiences of both men and women and probably the first African-American woman to speak in defense of women's rights. Born Frances Maria Miller in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut; died on December 17, 1879, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of a free black couple named Miller; educated through Sabbath schools; married James W. Stewart (a shipping agent), on August 10, 1826 (died December 17, 1829); no children.

Selected writings:

Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build (1831); "Cause for Encouragement" (1832); "The Negro Complaint" (poem, 1832); Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart (1835); Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart (1879);essays and speeches published by William Lloyd Garrison in the Liberator.

Not much is known about Maria Stewart's birth or early childhood except that she was born in Connecticut in 1803 to free black parents by the name of Miller. Orphaned at the age of five, she was indentured as a servant to a cleric until the age of 15 and lived with his family. She learned to read at Sabbath schools and had access to the family's library. At some point she moved to Boston and, at age 23, married 44-year-old James W. Stewart, a veteran of the War of 1812, who encouraged her to add his initial "W" to her name. They became part of Boston's black middle-class society until she was widowed three years later, at which point she was defrauded of the inheritance left by her husband.

Because of her husband's death and that of prominent antislavery activist David Walker, Stewart underwent a religious conversion, which resulted in a profound commitment to the cause of freedom. Although no longer aligned with any particular denomination, her religious beliefs converged with her politics. Stewart began to speak publicly, urging blacks to become educated and actively pursue their rights. She also submitted a manuscript to the editors of the Liberator who were recruiting black women to write for them. Founded by William Lloyd Garrison and Isaac Knapp, the Liberator was a weekly, Boston-based paper that became a major forum for the abolitionist movement. They published Stewart's Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build as a 12-page pamphlet in 1831. Militant in tone and published only two months after Nat Turner's slave revolt in Virginia, the essay entreated the black community to press for their rights, while cautioning whites about the zealous devotion to freedom that blacks possessed.

Stewart continued to express her views through public speaking engagements and is remembered for four notable addresses. In 1832, she addressed the African-American Female Intelligence Society of America and presented a lecture to a mixed audience of women and men at Franklin Hall—the meeting place of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. In 1833, she spoke at the African Masonic Hall. Critical of the white community's failure to provide sufficient assistance to blacks, Stewart was equally critical of blacks for their failure to struggle harder for their rights. A strident opponent of sending blacks back to Africa, Stewart urged blacks to educate themselves and stand together to demand their entitlement. She also urged women, black and white, to involve themselves more actively in society. Criticized herself, however, by Boston's black community for speaking out too much, she delivered her farewell address on September 21, 1833, and moved to New York City. In 1835, Garrison published the text of her four speeches, together with other essays and poems, as Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart.

In New York, Stewart joined a Female Literary Society and taught public school. She also worked for the North Star Association and attended the American Women's Anti-Slavery convention in 1837. In 1853, Stewart moved to Baltimore and privately taught black students. During the Civil War, she moved to Washington, where she became friends with Elizabeth Keckley , Mary Todd Lincoln 's seamstress and confidante. Stewart also worked at the Freedman's Hospital as the head of housekeeping, a position formerly held by Sojourner Truth . In 1871, she raised $200 and established a Sunday school near Howard University for the neighborhood's poor children, where university students frequently helped her as teachers. Finally, in 1879 she financed the publishing of a second edition of her speeches, Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart. Stewart died that December, 50 years to the day after her husband's death, at the Freedman's Hospital.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Richardson, Marilyn, ed. Maria W. Stewart, America's First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays & Speeches. IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall, 1994.

Karina L. Kerr , M.A., Ypsilanti, Michigan

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Stewart, Maria W. (1803–1879)

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