Last updated: January 16, 2023
Educator and activist Maria Louise Baldwin belonged to a generation of Bostonian Black women highly connected to circles of educated Black and White activists. In her work and activism, Baldwin walked a line between White and Black Bostonian cultures, a perfect example of elite female African Americans in Boston.
Born in 1856, Maria Baldwin grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the immediate years after the Massachusetts legislature desegregated public schools throughout the state.1 She graduated from Cambridge High School in 1874, and from the Cambridge Training School for Teachers in 1881. Despite Baldwin’s experience and training, it took local Black leaders to urge the Cambridge school board to hire her. In 1887, at the age of 31, she became a teacher at the Agassiz Grammar School, rising to the role of principal just two years later.2 Once she started teaching, progressive White Cantabrigians recognized her talents. A 1908 report stated that this "coloured woman, Miss Maria Baldwin, [was] the principal of the Agassiz school, of Cambridge, attended by 600 white children. [The author] heard her spoken of in the highest terms by the white people." In the eyes of the city’s White progressives, Baldwin stood as "almost one of the institutions of Boston."3 As she never married, she retained her position throughout her life.
In the late 1870s and early 1880s, parallel to this skyrocketing career, Maria Baldwin joined African American civil rights groups. As a member of these groups, she spoke publicly on civil rights and women’s rights issues, including describing the power of women’s suffrage and arguing that improved youth education would support that cause.4 She also became a member and later secretary of the Banneker Society, a local African American debate club.5 In meetings, Baldwin read many of her literature and history papers. In 1880, she opened her house to Boston’s Black intellectuals and social activists. Baldwin offered weekly readings and discussions to Black students attending nearby Harvard University. Not welcome in Harvard’s study spaces, these Black students found a safe intellectual haven in Maria Baldwin’s home.6
In the 1890s, Maria Baldwin co-founded the nationally influential and innovative Woman’s Era Club. She worked alongside the club’s other founding mothers: Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Eliza Gardner, Arianna Sparrow, and Florida Ruffin Ridley. While inspired by Ida B. Well’s 1892 speaking tour of eyewitness testimonials of lynchings in Memphis, TN, the Club focused on what they considered their generation’s obligation to work for all African American causes: the anti-lynching movement, voting rights for women, and education and employment opportunities. Baldwin supported the club’s purpose, using her great skills in public speaking and writing to deliver presentations and publish articles. She personally focused on working with the Boston community to create local, boots-on-the-ground change.7
At the end of the 1800s, Maria Baldwin continued to navigate White activist circles while becoming more involved in primarily Black and interracial organizations.8 In 1896, the Woman's Era Club of Boston stepped under the umbrella of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC). The Club continued to use its national reach among Black clubwomen for the next few years. Baldwin later became a member of the National Negro Committee (the precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) in 1909.9
In 1918, Maria Baldwin retired from her Agassiz position. The U.S. had been involved in the Great War for a little over a year. Her retirement gave Baldwin more time for the pressing projects the war brought to her community. She served as the first president of the League of Women for Community Service (LWCS) of Roxbury/Boston, established in 1918 as the Soldiers’ Comfort Unit. The Comfort Unit assisted returning soldiers and bereaved wives during the First World War before shifting to providing general educational and social services to the community. The work of the LWCS mirrored the social reformist spirit of the Black women’s club movement of the ‘Woman’s Era’ (1880–1920).10
Although Baldwin remained active in her final years, her health eventually failed her. In 1922, Maria Baldwin died from a heart attack at age 66.
Maria Baldwin’s professional career and her life in activism set goals that are still being fought for today: social justice, equity, and representation for Black Americans.
Contributed by: Polly Kienle, Park Guide
- Document HS I-14: "The Legislature Takes Action: Massachusetts Chapter 256, Desegregating Public Schools, 1855," In: High School Unit I, Lesson C: The Fight for Equal Education, 1800–1855: Two Case Studies of School Desegregation, MassMoments https://www.massmoments.org/teacher-resources/high-school/hs-unit-i-free-but-far-from-equal/lesson-c.html, accessed 10/27/2020.
- Nathaniel Vogel, "The Mismeasure of Maria Baldwin," Peacework, April 2002. To explore the history of the Agassiz School and how, in 2002, the Cambridge community chose to rename it in Baldwin’s honor, start with this article, "History of Baldwin School."
- Ray Stannard Baker, Following the Color Line: An Account of Negro Citizenship in the American Democracy (Philadelphia: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1908), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/34847/34847-h/34847-h.htm, accessed 09/08/2020, pp. 116-119, 120-121; see also: Franklin Square House Foundation, https://www.franklinsquarehousefoundation.org/history, accessed 10/25/2020.
- Most of these speeches did not survive as texts. We know of them through content descriptions and publicity. See: Kathleen Weiler, Maria Baldwin’s Worlds: A Story of Black New England and the Fight for Racial Justice (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019).
- For more about Benjamin Banneker, see this article: https://www.nps.gov/places/sw-9-intermediate-boundary-stone-of-the-district-of-columbia.htm.
- Among these students were W. E. B. Du Bois, William Lewis, Clement Morgan, and William Monroe Trotter (Weiler, pp. 47-48). This house became a National Historical Site in 1976. See: Maria Baldwin House, National Register of Historic Places, Inventory, Nomination Form, Theme 8 - Contemplative Society, 8c – Education, 197, located @ National Register of Historic Places Digital Archive on NPGallery, National Park Service, https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail/bb7d5173-93f8-4dbb-b500-6bca2da65188, accessed 11/01/2020.
- Weiler, Maria Baldwin’s Worlds, 51.
- She was still principal of a Cambridge public school and a member of interracial organizations: the Council of the Robert Gould Shaw House Association, the Boston Ethical Society, and the Twentieth Century Club of Boston. Maria Baldwin House, National Register of Historic Places, Inventory, Nomination Form, Theme 8 - Contemplative Society, 8c – Education, 197, located @ National Register of Historic Places Digital Archive on NPGallery, National Park Service, https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/AssetDetail/bb7d5173-93f8-4dbb-b500-6bca2da65188, accessed 11/01/2020
- Weiler, p. 132ff; "NAACP History: Mary White Ovington, " National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (https://web.archive.org/web/20171116085158/, http://www.naacp.org/oldest-and-boldest/naacp-history-mary-white-ovington/). Archived from the original (http://www.naacp.org/oldest-and-boldest/naacp-history-mary-white-ovington/) on 2017-11-16. Mary White Ovington was White – she describes the founding in the aforementioned work. The NAACP’s leading role in “Negros coming into their own” is traced here: Wilson Record, “Negro Intellectual Leadership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: 1910-1940.” In: Phylon vol. 17, no. 4, (1956) pp. 375-389; another version of the NAACP’s founding: “Founding and Early Years - NAACP: A Century in the Fight for Freedom,” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/naacp/founding-and-early-years.html, accessed 07/22/2020.
- The LWCS still exists today, here is its website: LWCS (lwcsboston.org). Kathleen Weiler, “Recovering a Life without a Voice,” Schlesinger Library Blog, Dec. 11, 2019 https://www.radcliffe.harvard.edu/schlesinger-library/blog/recovering-life-without-voice, accessed 07/22/2020. See also: Craig Doughty, “Black Elitism and Cultural Entrepreneurship in 1920’s Boston, Massachusetts: The League of Women for Community Service,” European Journal of American Studies, 14-2, (Summer 2019) 1-14, https://journals.openedition.org/ejas/14728, accessed 10/25/2020, and “A Tale of Two Women’s Organizations,” After Abolition: Black Society, Boston Black History.Org, http://academics.wellesley.edu/AmerStudies/BostonBlackHistory/history/tale.html, accessed 10/27/2020.
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