By Daphne Abeel, 2006
Cantabrigian Maria Baldwin, a gifted and imposing African-American educator of the early 20th century, has never lacked recognition. During her lifetime and after her death, she was praised and then remembered. She was exceptional for her era and perhaps for all eras, attracting the attention of the entire community with her engaging personality and great skills as a teacher and administrator.
The most recent acknowledgment of her lasting influence and reputation came just five years ago, when the old Agassiz Elementary School, at the corner of Oxford and Sacramento streets, was replaced by a new school building named in her honor, ensuring her permanent presence in
the annals of Cambridge education.
The poet E. E. Cummings, another Cantabrigian and her pupil for a time, wrote of her in an autobiographical reminiscence, “Never did any
demidivine dictator more gracefully and easily rule a more unruly and less graceful populace. Her very presence emanated an honor and a glory: the honor of spiritual freedom—no mere freedom from—and the glory of being, not (like most extant mortals) really undead, but actually alive.”
Born and educated in Cambridge, Baldwin graduated from the Cambridge Teachers Training School in 1875. Unable to find a job in her hometown, she taught briefly in Maryland, but as a result of demands by the black population of Cambridge, she returned to teach primary grades in 1882. In 1889, she was appointed principal of the Agassiz School and remained in that position for 24 years. When a new Agassiz School was built in 1916, she was appointed master, one of only two women to hold that position at the time.
In 1917, a column titled, significantly, “Men of the Month,” appeared in The Crisis: A Record for the Darker Races, a publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois stated: “Miss Baldwin, thus without doubt, occupies the most distinguished position achieved by a person of Negro descent in the teaching world of America, outside cities where there are segregated schools.”
As master of the Agassiz School, Baldwin oversaw 12 teachers, all white, who taught more than 500 students, most of them from old Cambridge families and many the children of Harvard professors. Baldwin continued her studies at Harvard and Boston universities, and at her home (196 Prospect Street), she held weekly reading classes for black students.
She was influential far beyond the classroom; she lectured widely and belonged to many civic organizations, including the Twentieth Century Club of Boston, the Cantabrigia Club, and the Robert Gould Shaw House Association. She counted among her friends and associates such leading lights as Edward Everett Hale, William Monroe Trotter, Archibald Grimke, and Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard.
Baldwin died suddenly of a heart attack in 1922, after giving a lecture at the Robert Gould Shaw House Association meeting. Her funeral, at Arlington Street Church, was attended by many, including President Eliot. The same year, a memorial tablet was placed in the hall of the Agassiz School. It hangs today in the Maria Baldwin School. In 1950, a women’s dormitory at Howard University was named after her.
In 1990, the play Miss Baldwin of Agassiz, by Carol E. Hantman, was performed at the Agassiz School for the first time and has been repeated
since. Her bright legacy seems assured.