There are many stories of dedicated educators who can boast of extraordinary accomplishments. One of these is Maria Fearing, an African American teacher and missionary who was born into slavery but went on to become a beloved teacher in the Congo.
Maria was born on July 26, 1938, on a plantation near Gainesville, Sumter County, Alabama. As a youngster, she was employed as a house servant, spending much of her time with her mistress and the other children. Maria completed the ninth grade, but didn’t really learn to read and write until she was 33 years old.
When the Civil War was won, Maria worked her way through the Freedman’s Bureau School in Talladega, Alabama, to become a teacher. (This school is now known as Talladega College.) The neophyte educator taught for a number of years in rural schools in Calhoun County in Alabama. But in 1894, at age 56, Maria was inspired to travel to the Congo on the African continent, where for more than 20 years she worked tirelessly as a teacher and Presbyterian missionary. While there, Maria established the Pantops Home for Girls (1915). Pantops took in girls who had been orphaned and those who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. The intrepid teacher used trinkets, tools, and even salt to barter for the freedom of these girls. She taught reading, writing, arithmetic, homemaking skills, and gardening in the mission day school, and she worked with the women of the surrounding villages. Her appreciative students nicknamed her “mama wa mputu” (“Mother from Far Away”). At the age of 78, because of failing health, Maria was encouraged to retire. In 1918, the Southern Presbyterian Church recognized her many years of dedication and hard work by honoring her with the Loving Cup.
Maria wasn’t ready to quit working, though. After returning to her native Alabama, she continued to teach, working at a church school in Selma, Alabama. She later returned to Sumter County, where she passed away on May 23, 1937. She was 100 years old.
Maria Fearing, a true chalkboard champion, was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000. You can read more about this amazing teacher at Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame.