In the first of our posts for Black History Month 2023, Lumina Kemp shares the history of Maria W. Stewart – a 19th century feminist and activist.
Many tragically underappreciated Black historical actors have shaped our thinking and lives so much so that our world would look different without their important contributions. Maria W. Stewart is high on that list. A quick Google search will describe her as a 19th century American abolitionist. She was also noted for being a writer, a lecturer, and an activist. However, a quick glimpse will not do justice to her role as the first Black feminist political writer.
Stewart’s lectures and writing examined not only how race, gender, and class systems oppressed Black women, but also held back society as a whole. Having witnessed the abhorrent treatment of African Americans in the North and the South before the American Civil War, she was motivated to become an activist. She wrote and published a political manifesto and spoke publicly (not an easy feat for a woman of any race in the 19th century) about the radical resistance needed to combat slavery, oppression, and exploitation.
This image was found at: Maria W. Stewart (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov). Used by permission of the Library of Congress.
Stewart made a name for herself after William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator published her first manuscript, and she gave public lectures that urged Black women to demand political rights and access to education. She spoke boldly to mixed audiences, who were less than thrilled by her assertion that African Americans’ servitude was not only a great injustice to themselves but a waste of potential for all of humanity. As an activist, Stewart taught in public schools and even established a school for children who escaped slavery during the Civil War. Her ability to critically and articulately expose her ideas laid the foundation for many others to build upon a much needed, and still relevant, critique of how capitalism, racism, and sexism adversely affect society.
Why do you think Stewart is such an important figure?
I believe it is important to critically examine history through an intersectional lens. We have great thinkers, writers, and actors like Maria W. Stewart to thank for that.
Lumina Kemp completed an MA in History in February 2023. She now works in the Division of Research, Enterprise and Innovation as a member of Professional Services. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org