Maria Miller was born a free-black in Hartford, Connecticut in 1803. Little is known about her early life. She married James Stewart in 1826 and took up public speaking in order to support herself after her husband’s death three years later. Cheated out of her inheritance by corrupt white Boston businessmen, Stewart relied upon income from teaching and her public speaking engagements. As one of the first women to speak in public, Stewart was not always well-received. In a speech to a mixed audience of men and women, she asked, “What if I am a Woman,” reminding her audience that women since ancient times had been revered for their wisdom and accomplishments. According to Stewart, free blacks had not accorded women the same respect.
Stewart frequently encountered hostile audiences when she openly chastised black men for intemperance. As a result, her speaking career was short. In 1833 she delivered a farewell address in Boston, announcing her decision to leave public speaking. Her last speech revealed her bitterness and disappointment, stating that it was “no use for me as an individual, to try to make myself useful among my color in this city.” Stewart eventually left New England to pursue a successful career in teaching in New York, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Before she left, she recorded the themes of her speeches in a pamphlet, Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart in 1832, which was reprinted shortly before she died. Stewart died in December 1879 and was buried at Graceland Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Shirley J. Yee, Black Women Abolitionists: A Study in Activism,
1828-1860 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992) and Harry A.
Reed, “Maria W. Stewart,” in Darlene Clark Hine, ed., Black Women in
America: An Historical Encyclopedia, Vol. II (New York: Carlson, 1993):
University of Washington