As we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month its time to recall that one of the early giants of both the Abolitionist movement and the women’s movement lived for many years in Williamsburg. Maria Stewart, who taught in Colored School #3 on Union Avenue, can claim a number of amazing firsts.
Stewart had a brief, but an extremely controversial career as a public orator in Boston where she became the first black American female to address a racially mixed audience. She also has the honor of being the first black American woman to lecture about women’s rights and black women’s rights. Stewart is even credited as being the first known American woman to lecture in public on political issues. As if these accomplishments were not enough Stewart also can claim to be the first black American woman to make public anti-slavery speeches. Speaking up also got her in a lot of trouble and that is part of the reason Stewart ended up here in North Brooklyn.
Maria Stewart was unique from her childhood. She was born free as Maria Miller in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut, during a period when the state still practiced slavery. All that is known about her parents is their surname: Miller. At the age of five, her parents passed away and she was forced to become a servant in the household of a white clergyman where she lived for 10 years.
Although Stewart received no formal education, she taught herself literacy by reading books from the extensive family library. After leaving the family at the age of 15, she continued to work as a domestic servant while continuing her education at Sabbath schools.
The young Stewart moved to Boston where on August 10, 1826, she married James W. Stewart, a 44-year-old veteran of the War of 1812 who earned a good living by fitting out whaling and fishing vessels. At the time, African Americans made up only three percent of Boston’s population, and the Stewarts were part of an even smaller minority: Boston’s black middle class.
In 1829, Stewart died. Although Stewart left his wife with a substantial inheritance, the white executors of the will cheated her out of it after a court battle. Once again, Maria was forced to turn to domestic service to make ends meet. Continue reading