Maria Fearing (1838-1937) was a teacher, missionary and former slave.
Born to Mary and Jesse on William O. Winston’s Oak Hill Plantation, near Gainesville, Alabama, on July 26, 1838, she spent much of her time with her mistress and the other children. Amanda Winston taught her children and Maria the Presbyterian catechism, told them Bible stories and tales about missionaries in Africa.
After emancipation, Jesse and his family took the surname of a previous owner, Fearing, and Maria learned how to read and write at the age of thirty-three. She worked her way through the Freedman’s Bureau School in Talladega to become a teacher and taught for a number of years in the rural schools of Calhoun County.
In 1891, Maria heard William Henry Sheppard speak at Talladega College. As a Presbyterian missionary, Sheppard appealed to the audience for volunteers to return with him to the Congo. Maria applied to work with the Presbyterian missionaries in Africa at the age of fifty-six.
She was denied at first, but was eventually approved as a self-supporting missionary. In May 1894, after selling her house and receiving a pledge for $100.00 from the women of the Congregational Church in Talladega, Maria paid her own expenses and sailed from New York to the Congo (Zaire). Once reaching shore, Sheppard, three other blacks and Maria traveled another 1200 miles inland to a mission station at Luebo. The journey lasted almost two months. After two years of service, Fearing was recognized as a full missionary and began receiving a salary.
While in Luebo, Maria learned the Baluba-Lulua language and assisted in the translation of the Bible. She promoted Christianity throughout neighboring villages. One of her lasting contributions was the creation of the Pantops Home for Girls, which helped girls who were orphans and those who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Maria used trinkets, tools and even salt to barter for their freedom. She taught reading, writing, arithmetic, homemaking skills, gardening and the tenets of the Christian faith. She hoped that when and if the girls married, they would spread these principles of good conduct and Christianity to their husbands and children. Her students nicknamed her, “mama wa Mputu,” (mother from far away) as a symbol of their love and appreciation.
Maria worked tirelessly for more than twenty years among the children of the Congo. She returned to Alabama in 1905 for a speaking tour to raise financial support for the missions. Ten years later, she was urged to take a leave of absence due to health reasons. In 1918, she received the Loving Cup, an honor bestowed upon her by the Southern Presbyterian Church. After retirement and returning to Alabama at the age of 78, Fearing taught at a church school in Selma and later returned to Sumter County where she died at the age of 99. Maria Fearing was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.
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