Thomas McCants Stewart, jurist, educator, author and civil rights leader
Herb Boyd | 4/18/2019, 10:40 a.m.
Among the illustrious Black New Yorkers cited in Carla Peterson’s “Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth Century New York City” is Thomas McCants Stewart. Getting a bead on Stewart’s peripatetic odyssey isn’t easy. He was born in South Carolina, educated at Howard University, a prominent civic leader in Brooklyn, a professor and judge in Liberia, and died in the Virgin Islands.
No matter where Stewart lived he was more than an active member of that society, dedicated to making things better for its residents, particularly in the realm of education and civil rights.
Stewart was born in Charleston, S.C., Dec. 28, 1853. His parents were George Gilchrist and Anna Morris Stewart, both free African-Americans. He attended Avery Normal Institute in Charleston until 1869 and then, at 15, enrolled at Howard University. He was 20 when he left Howard and later became one of the first Black students to attend the University of South Carolina at Columbia.
In 1875, he graduated from the university with a Bachelor of Arts degree and later that year earned a LL.B degree. He then joined the law firm of Rep. Robert Brown Elliott and D. Augustus Straker, both of whom would distinguish themselves in the annals of Black history and culture.
For a brief period, Stewart taught mathematics at the State Agricultural College, which was then part of Clafin University and later became South Carolina State University. Always interested in religious affairs and theology, he enrolled at the Princeton Theological Seminary. Two years later, in 1879, he was ordained and became pastor of Bethel American Methodist Episcopal church in New York City.
His social outlook and philosophy was aligned with Booker T. Washington, and he not only became a close associate of the great leader but diligently promoted his practice of self-help.
In 1883, two years after Washington founded Tuskegee Institute, Stewart moved to Liberia where he served as a professor at Liberia College. Ever a proponent of intellectual development and activities, he was a key participant in the American Negro Academy led by Alexander Crummell. He assisted in the group’s celebration of the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass in 1897, two years after his death. He had also joined Douglass in the denunciation of Isaiah Montgomery, the only Black delegate to the 1890 Mississippi constitutional convention. Montgomery, seeking a balancing act in the racial turmoil at that time, sided with his white colleagues in denying African-Americans the rights guaranteed in the constitution. Requiring Blacks to interpret the constitution as proposed by Montgomery “would make it possible for the judges of election to enfranchise every illiterate white man and to disenfranchise every illiterate Black man,” Stewart said
Two years later, in 1899, Stewart was back in Brooklyn and soon at the helm of the Brooklyn Literary Union. He was also active in the Democratic Party as well as a member of the Brooklyn School Board from 1891 to 1894.
He was instrumental in the establishment of P.S. 83 in the historic district of Weeksville, which was one of the first public schools in the nation to include a Black woman, Maritcha Lyons, as a supervisor of teachers. This may seem an easy transition, but as recounted by Peterson in her book, the conflict in Weeksville and the school system was fraught with infighting. But Stewart and his cohort prevailed, a testament to his ability at conflict resolution. “Skilled in legal argument and always spoiling for a good fight, Stewart was the perfect candidate to finish the work Philip [White] had started and create a truly integrated school in Brooklyn,” Peterson observed. “Yet his efforts exposed deep divisions not only between Blacks and whites but also within the Black community.”