The Spirit of Revolution: One African American Woman’s Contribution to Abolitionism and Proto-Black Feminism in 1830s Boston, Massachusetts

By Jaimie D. Crumley

Photo of Maria Stewart

Photo of Maria W. Stewart

Imagine it is 1831 in Boston, Massachusetts. A twenty-eight-year-old orphaned, widowed, childless, freeborn African American woman named Maria W. Stewart appears on the public stage. Stewart was born Maria Miller to free parents in 1803 in Hartford, Connecticut. When she was five years old, her parents died, and she went to live with a clergyman’s family. Miller worked in their home as a domestic laborer and received little formal education. At age fifteen, she left the clergyman family’s home and began to educate herself. Miller immersed herself in Biblical teachings, and she began to formulate her nascent ideas about race, gender, slavery, and religion. In 1826, she wed James W. Stewart, a mixed-race man several years her senior who had served honorably in the War of 1812 and worked as a shipping agent. Because he was mixed-race and worked in the shipping industry, he was well connected and had access to wealth. However, his death in 1829 uprooted Maria Stewart’s life once again. Although her husband left sufficient funds to care for her so long as she remained a widow, white lawyers defrauded her of the inheritance.1 As a childless widow in antebellum (the period from the adoption of the Constitution of the United States until the American Civil War) Boston, it was up to Stewart to determine how she would survive.

Stewart chose a path that was, at the time, unique for African American women. She visited William Lloyd Garrison, a then twenty-six-year-old white man who was known for his abolitionist efforts.2 Garrison had recently founded an abolitionist newspaper called The Liberator. The paper ran from 1831-1865, and Garrison published it from Boston, Massachusetts. When she met with him in 1831, Stewart presented him with a manuscript that contained her devotional writings and essays about the racism endured by African American people.3 When Garrison published her work, Stewart became one of the few African American women in antebellum America who wrote abolitionist literature and for whom we have extant writings. Stewart published her writings to support herself financially and to further the abolitionist effort. She also became the first United States-born woman of any race to speak before mixed audiences of men and women on political topics. Her abolitionist speeches focused on the theme of religion.4 Her belief was not in other-worldly salvation, but rather in God’s divine plan to liberate African American people in the here and now.

Stewart was unique among the African American women and men of her time. She was a “respectable”5 African American woman who flouted gender conventions by venturing into the public sphere to make abolitionist speeches. Furthermore, she represented an early iteration of African American (Black) feminist thought.6 In her 1831 tract, “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality,” Stewart said to African American women, “how long shall the fair daughters of Africa be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles?” Stewart’s words called to mind the domestic labor that defined life for African American women in the north and the south. Her choice of language asserts that abolitionism failed to consider the distinctive struggle of antebellum African American women who endured both racial and gender violence.7 However, as I advance in my research, Stewart was not only an early Black feminist; she also represented proto-womanist8 theology in that she placed the lived experiences of African American women at the center of her theological thought. In the tract cited above, Stewart treated African American women as the pastors of their homes, saying to them, “mothers, what a responsibility rests on you! You have souls committed to your charge, and God will require a strict account of you.” Stewart could not imagine a God who was not intimately concerned with the spiritual, social, and political needs and desires of African American women and their children. As a childless woman, Stewart understood African American women, not as bearers of children who would become unpaid laborers, but rather as uniquely powerful individuals. She understood the importance of their role as social reproducers.

Stewart issued her critiques of slavery, racism, and sexism in antebellum Boston, Massachusetts. The City of Boston was home to the British colonists who had a revolutionary spirit that compelled them to liberate themselves from British rule, which they considered to be oppressive. The revolutionary spirit of the North American colonists inspired an “age of revolutions” throughout the Western world.9 This revolutionary period occurred roughly between 1760 and 1850, and it was a period of economic, social, and political change and upheaval throughout the region scholars often describe as the Atlantic world.10 This region included North America, the Caribbean, West Africa, and Western Europe.

Much of the published scholarly work concerning this time of radical social upheaval focuses on the armed militiamen who inaugurated a new social order. However, my work focuses on the white supremacist logics promoted by the very men who abhorred British imperial encroachment in their new North American home. Starting with their earliest settlement in the New England colonies, these men created a new empire that they called the United States. This new imperial power was defined by unfreedom. My project builds on the scholarship of nineteenth-century African American women’s historians11 to assert that African American women in so-called freedom-loving cities, like Boston, cultivated intimate connections between themselves. They also developed relationships with abolitionists of all genders and races; they understood that collaboration across racial and gender lines was needed to secure their freedom. Nineteenth-century African American women gathered in their churches, formed mutual-aid societies, became abolitionist speakers and writers, and performed the work of social reproduction in their households. Together, they cultivated a shared abolitionist political vision predicated on their distinctive proto-Black feminist and womanist understandings of love and care. In our current moment, which is marked by the resurgence of white nationalism, transphobia, and xenophobia, can you imagine the world we might co-create if we allowed their vision to lead us?

Jaimie D. Crumley is a PhD student in the Department of Gender Studies at UCLA. She is the graduate student coordinator of the CSW Black Feminism Initiative, a faculty-graduate working group. Jaimie also is a 2019-2020 Alisa Bierria Graduate Fellow in Black Feminist Research and a recipient of a 2019 Fall Travel Grant from the Center for the Study of Women.

 

  1. Maria W. Stewart, America’s First Black Woman Political Writer: Essays and Speeches, ed. Marilyn Richardson, Blacks in the Diaspora (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), Carla L Peterson, Doers of the Word: African-American Women Speakers and Writers in the North (1830-1880) (New Brunswick, New Jersey; London: Rutgers University Press, 1998), Valerie C. Cooper, Word, like Fire: Maria Stewart, the Bible, and the Rights of African Americans, Carter G. Woodson Institute Series (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), and Bettye Collier-Thomas, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion, 1st ed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).
  2. Abolitionists are those who call for an end to systemic violence. In the antebellum period, abolitionists were anti-slavery. Contemporary abolitionists demand an end of modern-day iterations of slavery like trafficking and incarceration.
  3. See Garrison’s remembrances of Stewart in Maria W. Stewart, “Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart, (Widow of the Late James W. Stewart) Now Matron of the Freedman’s Hospital and Presented in 1832 to the First African Baptist Church and Society of Boston, Mass” (Washington, D.C., 1879), The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
  4. See, for example, her first tract that was published in The Liberator, Maria W. Stewart, “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality, the Sure Foundation on Which We Must Build,” in America’s First Black Women Political Writer: Essays and Speeches, ed. Marilyn Richardson (Boston, Massachusetts: Indiana Univ. Press, 1831).
  5. For a definition of the word “respectable” see Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880 – 1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993). Higginbotham’s work is about African American women in the late nineteenth century who framed themselves as missionaries to white America. They did so to liberate Black Americans from the racialized violence they endured in the advent of Black emancipation. I argue that the free women in New England took up respectability a century earlier as a form of self-preservation.
  6. Stewart is situated as a proto-Black feminist thinker in volumes like Beverly Guy-Sheftall, ed., Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought (New York: New Press, 1995) in which Guy-Sheftall creates a genealogy of African American feminist thought from the antebellum period and in Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Routledge Classics (New York: Routledge, 1990) in which sociologist Patricia Hill Collins situates US Black women as intellectuals who have historically struggled on behalf of Black women as they have labored both within and outside of the academy.
  7. For further Black feminist analysis of the gender violence done to Black women by and through slavery see, for example, Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17 (Summer 1987): 65–81 and Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I A Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York, New York: W. W. Norton, 1985).
  8. See Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York, NY: Harcourt, Inc., 1983) for the definition of the word womanist. Although Walker, a Black feminist author and activist, is not a theologian, Christian social ethicists like Katie Cannon and Dolores Williams took up Walker’s words in the 1980s and deployed them to develop a new theological ethic they called womanism. See for example Katie G. Cannon, Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community (New York: Continuum, 1995), Stacey M. Floyd-Thomas, ed., Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society, Religion, Race, and Ethnicity (New York: New York University Press, 2006), and Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1993).
  9. Jane Landers, Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2011) and David Armitage and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, eds., The Age of Revolutions in Global Context, c. 1760-1840 (Basingstoke, Hampshire New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).
  10. Eliga H. Gould and Peter S. Onuf, Empire and Nation: The American Revolution in the Atlantic World (John Hopkins University Press, 2015.)
  11. See, for example, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), Tera W Hunter, Bound in Wedlock: Slave and Free Black Marriage in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2019), Wilma King, The Essence of Liberty: Free Black Women During the Slave Era (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006), Martha S. Jones, All Bound up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830-1900, The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America, Race and American Culture (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), Jessica Millward, Finding Charity’s Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland, Race in the Atlantic World, 1700-1900 (Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press, 2015).
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