Maria Louise Baldwin: An eminent educator, civic leader, speaker

Black History

Anthony W. Neal | 5/2/2013, noon

Miss Maria Louise Baldwin was a gifted speaker, a civic leader and one of the nation’s most eminent African American educators. The daughter of Peter L. and Mary E. Baldwin, she was born on Sept. 13, 1856 in Cambridge, Mass. There, she attended the Sargent Primary and Allston Grammar schools. She graduated from Cambridge High School in 1874 and from Cambridge Teachers’ Training School the following year.

Baldwin wrote to then-Cambridge School Board member Horace E. Scudder, asking him to help her secure a teaching position. Scudder told her, however, that it seemed to him that it was clearly her duty to go south and work for those with more limited educational opportunities. Unable to land a teaching job in Cambridge, she headed south for Chestertown, Md., where she taught for two years.

But Baldwin did not give up the hope that she might one day obtain a teaching post in Cambridge. After discussing the matter with several people, she became convinced that there was work to be done in New England — living down race prejudice and demonstrating that black women could perform good and worthy work wherever they might cast their lot.

Perhaps caving in to pressure applied by the African American community, in 1882 the Cambridge School Department hired Baldwin as a teacher at the Agassiz School, making her the only black public school teacher in Cambridge. The Agassiz School was a primary grade school then located on the corner of Sacramento and Oxford streets. Baldwin soon ranked high among the teachers in the city, thanks to her exceptional ability.

She was appointed principal of the Agassiz School in 1889 — and then master — becoming one of just two women in the Cambridge Public Schools and the only African American in New England to hold such a post. She supervised an all-white staff of 12 teachers, who were responsible for approximately 500 students, 98 percent of them white. A black “master” of a white school was considered unheard of at that time.

Baldwin took courses at Harvard and other institutions to stay abreast of the latest developments in her field. During the summer, she taught courses to African American student-teachers at Hampton Institute in Virginia and the Institute for Colored Youth — an all-black teacher’s college in Cheyney, Penn.

She served at the Agassiz School faithfully for 40 years. Among her accomplishments were organizing the first parent-teacher group in the Cambridge Public Schools, introducing novel ways of teaching mathematics and inspiring the creation of a museum of science program within the school system. Under her direction, the Agassiz School became the only public school in Cambridge to create an “open-air” classroom. She also introduced the practice of hiring school nurses.

Baldwin was a talented speaker. According to one observer, “with rare ability” she delivered a lecture titled, “Woman’s Share in the Race’s Work,” at an event held at the Charles Street A.M.E. Church on June 26, 1888. She impressed a Boston Globe reporter in August of 1897, “as being a very cultivated woman, most pleasing in manner” and a person who spoke interestingly on “almost any subject except herself,” for she was “very modest and unassuming.”