#WomensHistoryMonth: Maria Baldwin

In 1889, Maria Baldwin was appointed the first Black person in New England to be the principal of a majority white school, which included a majority white staff. As an educator, she pushed institutional boundaries and set the tone for the civil rights movement in New England. Her educational leadership was admired by many, and to this day, she is still regarded as one of the greatest advocates in history.

Baldwin (1856-1922) had a special gift – she could navigate intellectual and activist spaces with incredible eloquence. On February 22, 1897, she made history by being the first Black person to speak at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. During her speech, she called on Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and condemned the horrors of slavery. Her audience responded with resounding support. From then on, she emerged as a steadfast advocate in the New England region, advocating for civil rights, campaigning against lynching, and promoting suffrage.

Her incredible reputation within the community empowered the League of Women in Community Service, also known as “the League,” to achieve remarkable strides in their mission. Her financial support led the League to purchase a five-story brownstone in the heart of Boston on Massachusetts Ave. This house became a hub for Boston’s Black community. Notably, this home hosted people like Coretta Scott King, who would meet her future husband, Martin Luther King Jr., while they both lived on Massachusetts Ave. To this day, the League proudly maintains ownership of this historic house, marking its place as one of the oldest continuously operating Black women’s clubs in the United States. 

Although Baldwin made significant contributions to the League, her life was not without its difficulties. In 1905, she faced a series of setbacks when she lost her family home in Cambridge, coinciding with her brother’s bankruptcy. Baldwin had no choice but to move to a rooming house in Boston’s South End, where she endured racial discrimination as the sole African American resident. Additionally, she battled heart disease, worsened by her demanding workload and packed speaking schedule. Tragically, she suddenly passed after speaking at a meeting for the Robert Gould Shaw House Association on January 9, 1922.

Maria Baldwin should be admired for her articulation and profound ability to seek the discomfort of spaces where she was historically unwelcome. Her endorsement of the League sparked transformative shifts in the community’s reception of Black individuals. The school she headed for 40 years, the Agassiz Elementary School, was renamed in her honor in 2002. Her remarkable contributions to the fight for justice and equality, and her pivotal role in creating a secure and culturally enriching space for the Black community, particularly Black women, may not have received the widespread recognition they deserve just yet. However, throughout Boston, and particularly here at WPLN, her legacy continues to resonate and thrive.