The Cambridge icon played a major role in Black New England and the fight for racial justice
BY KATHLEEN WEILER
(Excerpted from Maria Baldwin’s Worlds: A Story of Black New England and the Fight for Racial Justice, ©2019 University of Massachusetts Press.)
In 2000, Nathaniel Vogel, an eighth-grade student at the Agassiz Elementary School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, began a campaign to change the name of his school to the Maria Baldwin School. The Agassiz School had been named for the nineteenth-century Harvard professor Louis Agassiz, an internationally known geologist and zoologist. But Agassiz was also a follower of the theory of polygenism, which claimed that race is a scientific reality and that different races have separate origins and inherently different abilities, a hierarchical theory that justifies white privilege and racism. When Nathaniel Vogel read Stephen Jay Gould’s condemnation of Agassiz’s racist views in The Mismeasure of Man, he became ashamed that his school bore Agassiz’s name. He already knew something about Maria Baldwin, who had once been his school’s principal. There was a plaque commemorating her at the entrance to the school, and an annual award to an outstanding student was still given in her name. After he read the brief entry on Baldwin in Darlene Clark Hine’s Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia and contrasted Baldwin’s accomplishments with Agassiz’s scientific racism, he mobilized a campaign to change the name of the school. Cambridge and Boston newspapers and local television news programs publicized the story. After a number of open meetings, in 2002 the Cambridge School Committee voted to change the name of the school from the Agassiz to the Maria Baldwin School.
Maria Baldwin is now well known in Cambridge. But while she is recognized as an accomplished and pioneering educator, her accomplishments and role in the black freedom struggle have largely been forgotten. In fact, she was a central member of a group of African American activists in Boston and Cambridge who fought for full citizenship and civil rights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Knowledge of the active resistance to racism of these northern African Americans brings to light the ways in which racist practices and beliefs were named and contested in the era of Jim Crow. The figure of Maria Baldwin herself shows how a single individual could negotiate and challenge dominant white ideas of black womanhood. Through her achievements and what W. E. B. Du Bois called her “quiet courage,” she both called into question racist cultural images and assumptions in the white community and supported resistance in the black world.
Born in Cambridge in 1856, Maria Baldwin attended local elementary schools and graduated from what was then Cambridge High School in 1874 and the Cambridge teacher training program a year later. In 1881 she began teaching at the Agassiz Elementary School, a well-regarded public school attended by the children of Cambridge’s academic and professional elite. The staff and the overwhelming majority of the children were white. In 1889 Baldwin was named principal of the school, and in 1916 was given the position of master, one of only two women in the Cambridge school system to hold this title. She was a progressive New England schoolmarm. She loved Dickens and Tennyson, was welcome in the parlors of the old abolitionists, belonged to socially elite and progressive organizations, and was a supporter of women’s suffrage.
Acquaintances and former pupils spoke of her in glowing terms. The poet e. e. cummings, who had been her pupil at the Agassiz School, described her as “a lady if ever a lady existed . . . blessed with a delicious voice, charming manners, and a deep understanding of children. . . . From her I marvellingly learned that the truest power is gentleness.”
Accounts of Maria Baldwin’s charismatic presence and abilities as an educator are remarkably consistent. Her accomplishments were unique. The African American sociologist Adelaide Cromwell called her “the lone symbol of Negro progress in education in the greater Boston area” during her lifetime. Her friend W. E. B. Du Bois claimed in 1917 that she had gained “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.” For whites, Baldwin was a model citizen praised for her devotion to service and duty. For the African American community, she was a living example of the capabilities of the race. Throughout her life, she moved in and between these different worlds.
Baldwin was part of a small, closely connected Boston and Cambridge network of educated black professionals who denounced the growing violence against black people and the denial of black rights in the South, and who demanded full civil rights and social equality in the South as well as in the North. Boston’s educated black elite, similar to black groups and networks in other cities, included W. E. B. Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter, Archibald Grimké, George and Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Florida Ruffin Ridley, and Clement and Gertrude Morgan. There were disagreements and divisions in this group, which the sociologist Adelaide Cromwell called “the other Brahmins” of Boston, but all were civil rights activists who demanded full equality and justice for all African Americans and were leaders of black resistance to the growing racism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As well as Du Bois, the leading black intellectual of this generation, the group also included writers, lawyers, newspaper editors, and leaders of black cultural and political organizations. Maria Baldwin’s life was intertwined with the lives of these black New Englanders. Her success in the white world was seen as proof of black ability, but it was also an example of the kind of non-racist society they all wanted to achieve.
Baldwin was a significant figure for both white and black publics, but her work as an activist seeking justice in a deeply divided society was unmentioned in the many testimonials to her by white observers. The black community, which celebrated her achievements as an educator, was well aware of the barriers she had to overcome and her engagement in the black freedom struggle. Historical memory of her, however, has been based on accounts by white contemporaries who never spoke of her involvement in black political organizations, and on a few brief biographical sketches by black historians who largely avoided mentioning the racism she faced or her involvement in black resistance. Maria Baldwin was a public figure whose activities were noted in the major Cambridge and Boston newspapers, in the black press, in the records of the organizations she belonged to, and in the memoirs of her contemporaries. Piecing together this documentation of her accomplishments in both the white and black worlds of Boston and Cambridge reveals a complicated woman who lived the contradictions of a country that defined itself as valuing justice, respect, and freedom but that in practice sanctioned inequality, racial oppression, and violence.
Although Maria Baldwin is now honored in Cambridge, she is less recognized in the broader context of African American history—in Boston and beyond. Her accomplishments are significant and alone are reason why she should be included in our understanding of the black experience in the United States, while the issues raised by her life— the ongoing power of racism and resistance to it, the complexity of identity, and the choices we are faced with in worlds not of our own making—continue to confront us today.