Maria Miller was born in 1803 in Hartford, Conn., to two African-born parents. Orphaned at the age of five, she was “bonded out” to work as a servant for a local minister. At sixteen, she began her education in “Sabbath Schools” and eventually moved to Boston. When she was twenty-three, she married James W. Stewart, a Boston shipping agent twenty-four years her senior. His prestigious career brought the family some wealth and earned the couple a place among Boston’s black middle class. Through these connections, Stewart made acquaintances who would greatly inform her political thoughts and eventually inspire her actions. After just three years of marriage, James Stewart died of heart disease. Though he had provided generously for his wife in his will, Maria Miller Stewart was denied her inheritance because of the dishonest practices of some white businessmen. Just eight months later, in 1830, her close family friend David Walker also died. Walker had been Stewart’s political role model and had introduced her to what became known as Black nationalism. Though she was already politically conscious, these tragic events seemed to compel Stewart to speak out against racial and gender discrimination with a renewed sense of faith in the possibility for change.
In 1831, Stewart responded to William Lloyd Garrison's call for women to support the abolitionist cause. She brought him Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, a collection of political tracts she had written. Garrison published her work in his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. On September 21, 1832, she addressed a crowd of men and women in Boston’s Franklin Hall, becoming the first woman in America to address mixed gender and race audiences on the topic of abolition. Her first speech in September of 1832 at Boston’s Franklin Hall came at a time when “Negro speakers” were virtually unknown and it was considered unseemly for women to address audiences that included men. Evangelical in style, and soon known as a bold and militant orator, Stewart called on all black Americans to develop racial pride, unity, and self-improvement through the expansion of educational and occupational rights. She went on to give three other addresses before withdrawing from public speaking. Garrison remained one of Stewart’s supporters, and he showcased transcripts of her speeches in The Liberator. Several decades later, he even helped Stewart win the pension to which she was entitled as the widow of a soldier from the War of 1812. With this money, she was able to publish her collected speeches and writings in Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart.
Despite Stewart’s early success as a lecturer on behalf of abolition and the need for education for African American men and women, she was criticized for the boldness of her speeches and for violating the taboo prohibiting women from appearing on public platforms to address men. In 1833, she moved to New York City where she joined the Female Literacy Society and later taught black children, though at a fraction of the salary paid white teachers. She also continued to speak out eloquently on behalf of education. “Let our money be appropriated for schools and seminaries of learning for our children,” she wrote, for “our young men and maidens are fainting and drooping by the way-side for the want of knowledge.” Stewart spent her last years in Washington, D.C. In 1871, she founded a Sunday School, not far from the Freedman’s Hospital where she died just eight years later. She left behind no photographs or other documentation of her life other than her writings.
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