Rediscovering Americans - Maria Stewart

Maria Stewart was an early influential abolitionist and women’s rights activist whose speeches and writings left a lasting impact on African-American culture. Maria Stewart was born Maria Miller in 1803 Hartford, Connecticut to free, African born parents. By the age of 3 she was an orphan and went to live with a minister and his family, working as an indentured servant until she was 15. She later moved to Boston and worked as a domestic servant. While not formally educated, Stewart worked hard to learn as much as she could through Sunday school classes.

In 1826 she married James W. Stewart, a veteran of the War of 1812 who worked as an independent shipping agent. They became active members of the free black community in Boston where Maria met David Walker, an outspoken abolitionist who would help inspire her writings and speeches. Unfortunately the marriage did not last long when James died in 1829. They had no children and Maria was deprived of any inheritance because of the executors of the estate.

Stewart became involved in the abolitionist movement. She published several essays including Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build. She also coordinated with William Lloyd Garrison, submitting manuscripts for his paper The Liberator. Stewart also became a public speaker, giving four public addresses between 1831 and 1833, becoming the first African-American woman to do so. She used religious imagery to advocate against slavery and segregation while also arguing for equality for women. One of her most notable quotations was, “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.” While she was successful early on, she ultimately ended her speaking career after receiving critiques for some of her more controversial stances.

Later in life Stewart worked in education, establishing a school for children of freed slaves in Washington, D.C. in 1861and later serving as head matron at the Freedmen’s Hospital and Asylum. She was finally able to receive income from her husband’s pension and published a second edition of her book, “Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart”. Stewart died on December 18, 1879. The Episcopal Church honors Stewart and William Lloyd Garrison each year on December 17.

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