September 21, 1832 – Boston Speech by Activist Maria Stewart in Which She Demands Equal Rights for African-Americans

Maria W. Stewart was the first known American woman to speak to a mixed audience of men and women, whites and black. She was also the first African-American woman to make public lectures, as well as to lecture about women’s rights and make a public anti-slavery speech.

Maria was born to free African-American parents in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1803. At the age of five she lost both parents and was sent to live with a white clergyman and his family. She worked as a servant in that home until she was 15. Although she received no formal education, she educated herself with books from the family library.

She moved to Boston and in 1826 married James W. Stewart, a veteran of the War of 1812 and a member of Boston’s black middle class.  In December 1829, James Stewart died; the marriage had produced no children. Maggie MacLean wrote in her history of Stewart on the History of American Women blog reprinted here that although Maria Stewart was left with a substantial inheritance, she was defrauded of it by the white executors of her husband’s will after a drawn-out court battle. She returned to domestic service to support herself. 
In 1830, Stewart underwent a religious conversion and decided to dedicate herself to God’s service. For Stewart, MacLean pointed out, “her newfound religious fervor went hand-in-hand with political activism: she resolved to become a ‘strong advocate for the cause of God and for the cause of freedom.’” 

It happened that in 1831, William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of the abolitionist newspaper the Liberator, was calling for women of African descent to contribute to the paper. Stewart brought Garrison several essays which he agreed to publish. Her essays expanded on the themes of organizing against slavery in the South, and resisting racist restrictions in the North. She also advocated for more education for blacks and greater rights for women.

[Liberator masthead, 1831] [graphic]. | Library Company of Philadelphia Digital Collections

Soon afterward, Stewart began to deliver public lectures. Her first speaking engagement was on April 28, 1832, before the African American Female Intelligence Society of Boston.
On September 21, 1832, this day in history, Stewart lectured to an audience of both men and women at Franklin Hall. As an NPS site observed:

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 that speech, called “Why Sit Ye Here and Die?” she asserted that free African Americans were hardly better off than those in slavery:

Look at many of the most worthy and most interesting of us doomed to spend our lives in gentlemen’s kitchens. . . . “

She demanded equal rights for African-American women:

I have asked several individuals of my sex, who transact business for themselves, if providing our girls were to give them the most satisfactory references, they would not be willing to grant them an equal opportunity with others? Their reply has been—for their own part, they had no objection; but as it was not the custom, were they to take them into their employ, they would be in danger of losing the public patronage.

And such is the powerful force of prejudice. Let our girls possess what amiable qualities of soul they may; let their characters be fair and spotless as innocence itself; let their natural taste and ingenuity be what they may; it is impossible for scarce an individual of them to rise above the condition of servants. Ah! why is this cruel and unfeeling distinction? Is it merely because God has made our complexion to vary? If it be, O shame to soft, relenting humanity!”

In the same speech Stewart emphasized that African-American women were not so different from African-American men:

Look at our young men, smart, active and energetic, with souls filled with ambitious fire; if they look forward, alas! what are their prospects? They can be nothing but the humblest laborers, on account of their dark complexions…”

Notably, Stewart was criticizing Northern treatment of African Americans at a meeting in which Northerners gathered to criticize and plan action against Southern treatment of African Americans. She argued that the relegation of African Americans to service jobs was also a great injustice and waste of human potential.

You can read all of her stirring speech here.

In a later speech on February 27, 1833 to a racially integrated audience, Stewart advanced one of her most potent arguments against white supremacy by employing a biblical analogy:

Like King Solomon, who put neither nail nor hammer to the temple, yet received the praise; so also have the white Americans gained themselves a name, like the names of the great men that are in the earth, while in reality we have been their principal foundation and support. We have pursued the shadow, they have obtained the substance; we have performed the labor, they have received the profits; we have planted the vines, they have eaten the fruits of them.”

In strident words challenging her audience, she charged:

We have been imposed upon, insulted and derided on every side; and now, if we complain, it is considered as the height of impertinenance.  We have suffered ourselves to be considered as dastards, cowards, mean, faint-hearted wretches; and on this account, (not because of our complexion), many despise us and would gladly spurn us from their presence.

. . . I would ask, is it blindness of mind, or stupidity of soul, or the want of education, that has caused our men who are 60 or 70 years of age, never to let their voices be heard nor their hands be raised in behalf of their color? Or has it been for the fear of offending the whites?”

Garrison printed transcripts of her speeches in the Liberator, although they were relegated to the paper’s “Ladies’ Department.” Yet, as Jeff Biggers, the award-winning historian, journalist, and playwright, who wrote a profile of Stewart in his book Resistance: Reclaiming an American Tradition, pointed out, thanks to Stewart, the “Ladies Department” became the most radical page of the newspaper.

MacLean observed that “[t]he response to Stewart’s speeches – even from those who supported her cause – was overwhelmingly negative; she was condemned for having the audacity to speak onstage.”

Stewart gave in to public pressure and stopped lecturing in 1833, then turning her attention to education. In 1833, Stewart moved from Boston to New York City, where she taught in public schools in Manhattan and Long Island. She also continued her political activities, joining women’s organizations, including a black women’s literary society, and attending the Women’s Anti-slavery Convention of 1837. She also lectured occasionally, and in 1835 Garrison published her collected works, Productions of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart. (You can read this book online courtesy of the New York Public Library, here.)

William Lloyd Garrison, circa 1870

Within a year of its appearance, other women, both black and white, began to follow the path Stewart had opened, lecturing in churches and meeting halls across the country.
In 1852, Stewart moved to Baltimore, earning a small living as a teacher of paying pupils, and in 1861 she moved to Washington, D.C., starting a school for children whose families had escaped from slavery.
By the early 1870s, Stewart had been appointed as head matron at the Freedman’s Hospital and Asylum in Washington. Stewart continued to teach, even as she lived and worked at the hospital. 
In 1878, a law was passed granting pensions to widows of War of 1812 veterans. Stewart used the unexpected money to publish a second edition of Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart. The book, which appeared on December 17, 1879, was introduced by supporting letters from Garrison and others. 
Shortly after the book’s publication, Maria Stewart died at the Freedmen’s Hospital at age 76. Her obituary in “The People’s Advocate,” a Washington-area black newspaper, acknowledged that Stewart had struggled for years with little recognition: “Few, very few know of the remarkable career of this woman whose life has just drawn to a close.” She was buried in Graceland Cemetery in Washington, DC. 

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