Maria Baldwin is a woman you should know about

03/8/23  |  Rebecca Taplin

Happy International Women’s Day! Today, we celebrate the contributions of women all over the world. But because we’re Liz & Ellie Local, we are highlighting the incredible life of Cambridge’s first Black school principal, Maria Baldwin. Our very own Liz Lyster sits on the Cambridge Historical Commission, and she shared with us that Maria Baldwin’s home on 194-196 Prospect Street was approved as Cambridge’s 43rd designated landmark during their recent meeting. This means that the publicly-visible exterior of the home is protected from alterations, and the home will be preserved as an important part of Cambridge’s history. It also means that people need to know what Maria Baldwin accomplished that drove this landmark designation. Her story does not disappoint.

Maria (pronounced “Mariah”) Baldwin was born in Cambridge in 1856. During her childhood, her family lived in Cambridgeport and she attended Cambridge public schools. She completed a teacher training program in Cambridge, but couldn’t find work as a teacher in her hometown. Baldwin did find work in a segregated school in Maryland, where she spent two years; however, she wished to return to Cambridge. She finally got an elementary teaching position at what was then known as the Agassiz School, and became the only Black educator in all of Cambridge. All reports detail her excellent teaching style, her warmth, and her dedication to her students.


Baldwin taught for eight years at the Agassiz School, then became its principal in 1889 with the support and encouragement of the School Committee and the retiring principal. She moved to 196 Prospect Street this same year, and held meetings there for students and activists in the Black community until 1905, when she moved to Boston (that’s a whole other story: her brother Louis lived with her, but he went bankrupt, so Maria had to rent a room at a working women’s hotel). One of her college-aged students was the inimitable W.E.B. Du Bois, who was attending Harvard University at the time. Baldwin served as the principal of the Agassiz school for nearly 30 years.


Maria Baldwin continued her dedication to advocacy and activism for the remainder of her life. She co-founded the Woman’s Era Club, which sought to address issues related to lynching, suffrage for women, education, and employment for the area’s Black residents; she also held high positions in the NAACP and the Negro National Committee, among others. Baldwin remained close with the president of Harvard, Cambridge public school administrators, and her former students. Baldwin died of a heart attack at the age of 66; her funeral was packed with people from all races, classes, and backgrounds.


Now here’s something you need to know: the Cambridge school she worked at as a teacher and as its principal was named after Louis Agassiz, a polygenist from Harvard University. What is a polygenist, you may ask? Well, a polygenist is a person who (erroneously) believes that different races evolved separately, and thus different races have characteristics that are viewed as “better” or “stronger” than others. Polygenism was used to further oppress and discriminate against people of color (and some still use it today). However, in 2002, an eighth-grader at Agassiz read a plaque on the wall of his school that gave some information about Maria Baldwin. This served as the catalyst for him lobbying the school board to change the name of the school to honor Baldwin, a beloved teacher and activist with direct ties to the school. His efforts were successful, and the Agassiz school is now the Baldwin School. 


The school’s name change, combined with the recent designation of Maria Baldwin’s home as a Cambridge landmark, serves to ensure Baldwin’s legacy in the Cambridge community. You can now view her home where she lived and reflect on her life of service and activism; and you can be sure it will be protected for future generations.

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