“O, ye daughters of Africa, awake! Awake! Arise! No longer sleep nor slumber, but distinguish yourselves. Show forth to the world that ye are endowed with noble and exalted faculties.”
It’s not too farfetched to say that Maria Stewart, the author of these words, was the female counterpart to the great Marcus Garvey. No, she was not a “back to Africa” advocate; in fact, she was totally opposed to the colonization movement of the 1830s that held that returning to Africa was the only satisfactory way for Blacks to deal with America’s history of slavery and racism.
Stewart believed the advocates of colonization were “blind to their own interest,” and she, along with Frederick Douglass and others, decided to stay in America and fight for what she felt was rightfully hers. “If the colonizationists are the real friends of Africa, let them expend the money which they collect erecting a college to educate her injured sons in this land of gospel, light and liberty,” she said in a speech at the African Masonic Hall in Boston on Feb. 27, 1833.
Maria Miller was born free in Hartford, Conn., in 1803 and was orphaned at the age of 5. She was sent to live with a clergyman’s family until she was 15, earning her keep as an indentured servant. It was in this environment that she acquired a modest formal education, though it was mainly derived from Sunday school lessons. In 1826, she married James W. Stewart, but he died three years later, and she was subsequently cheated out of her inheritance by lawyers. She was left impoverished.
In 1831, she accepted Jesus Christ as her savior and publicly professed her belief in his message and sermons. According to one biography, her conversion resulted from her affiliation with the militant abolitionism of David Walker. Upon his death, she was inspired to carry on his fight for the freedom of the enslaved. A year later, she delivered four public lectures in Boston, thereby becoming the first American-born woman to lecture before a public audience.
This breakthrough was not without its consequences, and soon the notoriety was unbearable, necessitating her move to New York City, where she resumed her education and later began to make her mark as a teacher.
Some of her earliest articles appeared in William Lloyd Garrison’s paper, The Liberator, none more influential than “Religion and Pure Principles of Morality,” which later became one of her many pamphlets.
Along with teaching and speaking engagements, Stewart began to write more extensively, publishing several pamphlets, including “Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart” in 1835, which was published by Garrison. Her essential message in this and other pamphlets was the importance of education, particularly for Black women. Her bold, outspoken position on the rights of women had a powerful impact on other women, who also began to voice their views in various abolitionist-conducted forums.
Eventually, Stewart’s desire to educate Blacks evolved into a plan to start her own school in Baltimore by 1852; a decade later, she was living in Washington, D.C., where she opened her own school. One of her dear friends in the nation’s capital was Elizabeth Keckley, the seamstress for Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.
After the Civil War, Stewart was appointed the head of housekeeping at the Freedmen’s Hospital and Asylum, a role originally held by Sojourner Truth. The hospital was a popular refuge for the recently emancipated slaves. By the late 1870s, she had founded a Sunday school, and a windfall came her way when a law made her eligible for a widow’s pension based on her husband’s service in the Navy during the war of 1812. The $8 a month, along with a sizable retroactive payment, was enough to finance her book, a collection of essays called “Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart,” published in 1879.
The following is an excerpt from her public lecture at African Masonic Hall, cited above:
“The unfriendly whites first drove the native American from his much loved home. Then they stole our fathers from their peaceful and quiet dwellings and brought them hither and made bondmen and bondwomen of them and their little ones. They have obliged our brethren to labor, kept them in utter ignorance, nourished them in vice and raised them in degradation, and now that we have enriched their soil and filled their coffers, they say we are not capable of becoming like white men and that we can never rise to the respectability in this country. They would drive us to a strange land.
“But before I go, the bayonet shall pierce me through. African rights and liberty is a subject that ought to fire the breast of every free man of color in these United States and excite in his bosom a lively, deep, decided and heartfelt interest.”
Stewart died shortly after her last book was published. She died in the same hospital where she worked. She is buried in Washington’s Graceland Cemetery.