Maria (Ma-rye-ah) Fearing was born to Mary and Jesse on William O. Winston's Oak Hill Plantation, near Gainesville, Alabama on July 26, 1838. As a house servant, she spent much of her time with her mistress and the other children. Mrs. Amanda Winston taught her children and Maria the Presbyterian catechism, told them Bible stories, and tales about missionaries in Africa. These stories about Africa left a deep impression on Maria.
After emancipation, Jesse and his family took the surname of a previous owner, Fearing. Maria was thirty-three years old before she learned to read and write. She worked her way through the Freedman's Bureau School in Talladega (Talladega College) to become a teacher. She taught for a number of years in the rural schools of Calhoun County.
In 1891, Maria heard William Sheppard speak at Talladega College. As a Presbyterian missionary, Sheppard appealed to the audience for volunteers to return with him to the Congo. At the age of fifty-six, Maria applied to work with the Presbyterian missionaries in Africa. Denied at first, she was 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 African Americans, and Maria traveled another 1200 miles inland to a mission station at Luebo. The journey lasted almost two months. After two years, she 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. This home 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 left a lasting impression on many people, both in Alabama and in the Congo.
Except for returning to Alabama in 1905 for a speaking tour to raise financial support for the missions, Maria Fearing worked tirelessly for more than twenty years among the children of the Congo. In 1915, she was urged to take a leave of absence for health reasons. At the age of 78, Fearing was encouraged to retire. In 1918, she received the Loving Cup, a honor bestowed on her by the Southern Presbyterian Church. After returning to Alabama, Maria taught at a church school in Selma, and later returned to Sumter County, were she died at the age of 99.
Alabama Women's Hall of Fame