It takes a strong and determined person to step forward and do something that no one else has been able to do before.
When Maria W. Stewart left the stage on Sept. 21, 1833, some people may have seen her last public speech as a sign of failure. Stewart had been the first American woman to ever make a public speech in front of a mixed audience of men and women, as well as blacks and whites. She was also the first African American to lecture in front of such mixed audiences. [insert Maria W. Stewart photo here]
Stewart was born Maria Miller on June 20, 1803, to free parents in Hartford, Connecticut, but was orphaned by the age of five. The local authorities drew up a term of indenture between the child and a local minister. She was not formally educated while in service, but she was able to use the family’s library, and taught herself to read. Once the term of indenture was finished, Stewart left that family but continued to work as a domestic servant to provide for herself.
At some point, Stewart moved to Boston, where she met and married James W. Stewart in August 1926. She took his middle initial and his surname. Her husband was an independent shipping agent and a veteran of the War of 1812. Together they were part of the then-tiny African American subsection of Boston’s middle class. The couple became part of the Massachusetts General Colored Association, a group that demanded the immediate abolition of slavery in America.
Stewart’s husband died in 1829. They had no children, and it was easy for the executor to deny Stewart’s claim to her husband’s property. It is likely that she had to return to domestic work, but in January of 1831, The Liberator, an abolitionist newspaper, put out a call for black women writers, and Stewart turned to the pen. William Lloyd Garrison, the publisher of The Liberator, liked Stewart’s submission so much that he published her article “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality” as a pamphlet in the summer of that year.
Soon Stewart was giving speeches, and Garrison continued to publish them and promote her. Her first of three public speeches was in April 1832 before a black female audience at the African American Female Intelligence Society of Boston. The organization was made up of “women of color of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” and focused on “the welfare of our friends” and opposed slavery, but by simply going there to speak, Stewart was demonstrating the intellectual prowess their name suggests.
In September 1832 Stewart broke the barriers of public speaking when she addressed her publisher, Garrison’s own New England Anti-Slavery Society. Unlike her previous speech, this was open to the general public, and the audience was mixed in both gender and race.
People attending her speeches and those reading about them in The Liberator had harsh words for such unfeminine behavior. To put this into context, only four years before, Scottish abolitionist Fanny Wright had caused similar outcries about her public speeches in the United States. Even though verbal attacks were aimed at them, both women continued to give public speeches. Stewart’s third lecture was at the African Masonic Hall in Boston in Feb. 27, 1833; titled “African Rights and Liberty,” the topic likely incensed her critics, because she opposed the organization’s goal of “returning to Africa.”
On today’s date, Sept. 21, in 1833, Stewart gave her “Farewell Address” in Boston at the Belknap Street Church. The church, now a national landmark called “African Meeting House,” was the first African American Baptist church north of the Mason-Dixon Line. It was also where Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society, so it should have been a welcoming audience to Stewart. It is unclear how her final speech was received, but she left Boston soon after and moved to New York City.
In New York, Stewart taught school in Manhattan and Brooklyn, finally becoming assistant principal of the Williamsburg School in Brooklyn. Her professional relationship with Garrison continued, and he put out a collection of her speeches and other works titled “Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart” in 1885. That book is widely credited as inspiring other women abolitionists to start speaking in public.
Between 1852 and 1853, Stewart moved to Baltimore and taught privately. Then in 1861, she moved to Washington D.C. to continue teaching. By 1870, she was appointed to head of housekeeping at the Freedmen’s Hospital and Asylum, a position once held by Sojourner Truth. In 1868, the clinic also became a teaching hospital of Howard University Medical School, which would fully acquire the facility in 1967.
In 1878, she finally received a widow’s pension from her husband’s service decades earlier. With the $8 a month and some owed income, she published Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart. The book included older material as well as pieces she wrote about the Civil War and correspondence from others to her. She died the same month that book came out.
Stewart had never been a slave, but she certainly had to struggle against sexism and racism during her lifetime. She refused to play the role of a quiet widow or downtrodden orphan. Her words and actions should inspire us all to find ways to speak out even if public speaking is challenging for us, if you remember this quote from her work: “It is harder to kill a whisper than even a shouted calumny.”