Maria Fearing was born into enslavement in Gainesville, Alabama on July 26, 1838. She was a house servant for 30 years working on a plantation. The plantation owner’s wife, Amanda Winston a Presbyterian, introduced Maria to the Bible and told her stories of missionaries in Africa. The stories of Africa and religion had made a lasting impression on her.
After the end of slavery, Maria continue working as a servant to finance her own education. She graduated from the Freedman’s Bureau School in Talladega and qualified as a teacher at the age of 33. She then continued working as a house servant, saving her money and teaching children at her local church, pastored by William Henry Sheppard, one of the earliest African Americans to become a missionary for the Presbyterian Church.
At the age of 56, Maria, accompanied William Henry Sheppard to Africa in 1894 as a Presbyterian missionary. Sheppard is best known for his efforts to publicize the atrocities committed against the Congolese peoples by King Leopold II’s Force Publique.
Rejected by church officials and clergy because of her age, she refused to be denied a trip back home to Africa. Maria sold her home, and used her savings to finance her own one way trip.
For twenty years, she worked in the Congo as a teacher and Bible translator. She also bought many people out of slavery in the Congo. Her most famous achievement was the establishment of the Pantops Home for Girls in Luebo, Congo. She was known as mama wa Mputu, which means “Mother from far away”.
Despite the church’s skepticism, #MariaFearing outlasted many of her colleagues in Africa and only retired from missionary service in 1915. She taught school in Selma, Alabama, until her death on May 23, 1937 at the age of 99. Her life story has been told in Alabama history textbooks sense since the 1960s and she was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.