Abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Maria W. Stewart was one of the first women of any race to speak in public in the United States. She was also the first Black American woman to write and publish a political manifesto. Her calls for Black people to resist slavery, oppression, and exploitation were radical. Stewart’s thinking and speaking style influenced Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.
Born free in Hartford, Connecticut in 1803, Maria Miller was orphaned by the age of five. She was “bound out” as an indentured servant to a minister until around the age of fifteen. At some point she moved to Boston and supported herself as a domestic servant. She sought as much education as she could get, mostly through Sunday school classes in reading and religion. In 1826, she married James W. Stewart, a shipping agent and veteran of the War of 1812.
The Stewarts became members of the small but vibrant free Black community in Boston’s Beacon Hill area. They attended Boston’s African Baptist Church, located in the African Meeting House. David Walker, a radical abolitionist whose pamphlet David Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World called for Black people to fight against enslavement and oppression, knew the couple and influenced Maria Stewart’s thinking. When Walker and his wife moved out of their former home at what is now 81 Joy Street, the Stewarts moved in. Just three years after their marriage, James Stewart died.
Stewart’s deepening religious faith and the racism and segregation she experienced in Boston pressed her to speak her mind publicly. In 1831, she delivered a manuscript to the offices of White abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s new newspaper The Liberator. That summer, she published her essay, Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build. The success of the piece led to a short but significant public speaking career for Stewart. She gave four recorded public lectures between 1831 and 1833.
Stewart used Biblical language and imagery to condemn slavery and White racism. She argued that it was God’s will for Black people to struggle against oppression, using force if necessary. She exhorted Black audiences, especially women, to pursue education and to demand political rights, but not to forget who oppressed them. “Sue for your rights and privileges,” she wrote in 1831. “Know the reason that you cannot attain them.” She reminded white readers that “our souls are fired with the same love of liberty and independence with which your souls are fired…we are not afraid of them that kill the body and after that can do no more.”
Stewart’s speech in September 1832 at Franklin Hall is one of the first recorded instances of an American woman—of any race—speaking in public. It was extremely rare for women to give public addresses in the early 19th century, especially in front of a “promiscuous audience”—one that contained both men and women. Many people considered it improper and even immoral. By daring to do so, Stewart embodied the equality she called for in her speeches. She staked a claim for Black women as leaders of the resistance to oppression she believed God demanded of them.
In 1834, Stewart left Boston and moved to New York, where she joined a Black “Female Literary Society” and began teaching. She spent her later years in Baltimore and then in Washington, D.C. In Washington, she was appointed Matron of the Freedmen’s Hospital.1 In 1878, a new law made Stewart eligible to collect a pension from her husband’s military service in the War of 1812. She used the money to publish a new edition of her speeches and writings. Stewart died in the Freedmen’s Hospital in 1879.2
- Freedmen’s Hospital is now Howard University Hospital. The main quadrangle at Howard, the Yard, was added to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark on January 3, 2001.
- Stewart was buried in Graceland Cemetery, which was closed in 1894; most bodies were disinterred and reburied at the new Woodlawn Cemetery. Woodlawn was added to the National Register of Historic Places on December 20, 1996.
Broadnax, Lavonda Kay. "African American History Month: The Struggle for Civil Rights Past, Present, and Future." Library of Congress Blog, Feb. 5, 2019. https://blogs.loc.gov/loc/2019/02/african-american-history-month-the-struggle-for-civil-rights-past-present-and-future/
Cooper, Valerie C. Word, Like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012.
Nielsen, Euell A. "Maria W. Miller Stewart." Blackpast.org, Feb. 7, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/people-african-american-history/stewart-maria-miller-1803-1879/.
Richardson, Marilyn, ed. Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Walker, David. Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America. Boston, MA, 1829. https://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/walker/walker.html.