Wednesday, December 11, 2019
Portrait of Maria L. Baldwin. Portrait photograph collection, courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPortrait of Maria L. Baldwin. Portrait photograph collection, courtesy of Schlesinger Library

I recently completed a biography of Maria L. Baldwin (1856–1922), a greatly respected African American educator and community leader in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Baldwin was the principal of the Agassiz School, a well-regarded, predominantly white public elementary school in Cambridge, for over 30 years. Baldwin achieved, her good friend W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “without doubt . . . the most distinguished position achieved by a person of Negro descent in the teaching world of America, outside cities where there are segregated schools.”*

There has been little scholarly work on Maria Baldwin’s life. She published only a handful of short pieces, and few of her public speeches were transcribed. If she left any personal writings, they have been lost. The few biographical sketches of her rely heavily on tributes to her by white educators and officials that were published after her death. These list her accomplishments as an educator and her participation in white-dominated organizations, but say nothing of her involvement in the black freedom struggle. In fact, she was a central figure in the founding of the Woman’s Era Club, one of the nation’s first black women’s clubs, and The Woman’s Era, the first journal published and edited by black women. She served as a board member and later president of the Boston Literary and Historical Association, an organization founded by black Boston activists opposed to the accommodationist approach of Booker T. Washington. She also held memberships in the Niagara Movement (once women were allowed to join); the Committee of Forty, which oversaw the establishment of the NAACP; and the Executive Board of the Boston Branch of the NAACP. She was also a founder and the long-term president of the League of Women for Community Service, an important black women’s service organization in Boston.

Two of the few manuscript letters from Maria Baldwin are in the Charlotte Hawkins Brown papers at the Schlesinger Library. Brown, a leading black educator who attended Cambridge public schools, saw Baldwin as a role model. Baldwin was the only black principal (and the only black educator period) in the Cambridge public schools when Brown was growing up. When Hawkins became the head of her own school in Sedalia, North Carolina, she invited Baldwin to join her faculty. Baldwin’s letter to Brown in response is polite and flattering, stating that she was “sorry to have to write that I cannot go to Sedalia, as much as my heart desires it.”**

Page of letter from Maria Baldwin to Charlotte Hawkins Brown, February 6, 1911. Charlotte Hawkins Brown papers, courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryPage of letter from Maria Baldwin to Charlotte Hawkins Brown, February 6, 1911. Charlotte Hawkins Brown papers, courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryBaldwin’s polite letter to Brown is one of the few remaining documents in her own words. Her few published articles and the transcriptions of her lectures are measured and cautious in tone. Baldwin, like many black New Englanders of her generation, had been deeply influenced by the abolitionists and believed that a democratic multiracial society could be created in the United States. But by the second decade of the 20th century, the belief that thoughtful argument and black respectability could effectively challenge white racism began to be replaced by a more militant stance. Maria Baldwin has long been viewed as a moderate who was able to move successfully in white as well as black worlds, but her activities in the last years of her life suggest a strong race consciousness and growing militancy.

Minutes of the League of Women for Community Service held at the Schlesinger Library show that Baldwin, always a teacher, increasingly led the other League members to a deepening analysis of white racism and black resistance. The March 13, 1919 Minutes describe the visit of two sergeants from one of the black regiments who fought in France during World War I. Baldwin asked the visitors whether the war had hardened them and one of the sergeants replied that it had. Many of the men were from the South and had had no familiarity with modern weapons. But now “upon return to the Southland should reasons demand it they would [aim] scientifically at the bulls eye and never fail.”

This response, with its embrace of active black resistance to white racism, captures the growing militancy of the post war years. Two years later Baldwin invited two survivors of the white race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to speak to the club about their experiences of racist violence.

While the manuscript of Maria Baldwin’s Worlds was in revision, I read Lorraine Roses’ Black Bostonians and the Politics of Culture, 1920–1940. In it I came across a reference to additional material from the League of Women for Community Service that was to be given to the Schlesinger Library. This small collection includes a souvenir program from the dedication of the Maria L. Baldwin Memorial Library, which gives details of the memorial reading room and its collection of material about black history. An article in the March 18, 1922, issue of the Boston Transcript describes the meeting held to discuss the establishment of a reading room as a memorial to her. Among the notable speakers at this event was Florida Ridley, Baldwin's oldest friend and a member of the League for Women in Community Service. Ridley’s comments placed Baldwin's life in the context of black resistance.

Ridley traced the changes during her own and Baldwin's lives, comparing their youthful admiration of 19th century abolitionists to the 1920s when black youth saw their “greatest hope and largest future in the development of what is being termed race consciousness.” In the years following the Civil War, Ridley continued, “the negro thought it his duty to put his past behind him and merge himself into the life of the community and to strive only to become a good American citizen.” But "the negro has not been received." Instead, “thrown back upon himself, race pride is coming to his support; race pride, race achievement is becoming the slogan of our student group, that great and growing body on whom our hopes depend.” The best memorial to their “lost leader, Miss Baldwin,” Ridley concluded, would be to establish a room “which will be a record of the achievements of negro patriots, of negro citizens, and which will symbolize also the fight for freedom.”***

Ridley's speech, and the related souvenir program for the memorial library, provide evidence of the impact of the growing post-war militancy in the black community on educated black Bostonians and their respect for Baldwin as a leader in the fight for freedom.

League of Women for Community Service March 13, 1919 minutes, p. 119. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryLeague of Women for Community Service March 13, 1919 minutes, p. 119. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

* W. E. B. Du Bois, “Man of the Month,” The Crisis 13, no. 6 (April 1917): 281.

** Maria Baldwin to Charlotte Hawkins Brown, February 6, 1911, Charlotte Hawkins Brown Papers, Correspondence to and from Charlotte Hawkins Brown, 1910–1911, A-146, folder 33, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

*** “A Baldwin Memorial Room.” Boston Transcript (March 18, 1922).

Kathleen Weiler is an emeritus professor of education at Tufts and has just completed the book Maria Baldwin’s Worlds: A Story of Black New England and the Fight for Racial Justice. University of Massachusetts Press, 2019.


By Kathleen Weiler