Maria L. Baldwin Biography

Maria L. Baldwin (1856-1922)

mbaldwin_port.gifMaria Baldwin was a notable figure both locally and nationally. Educated in the Cambridge school system, she graduated from Cambridge High School in 1874, and from the City's teacher training school in 1875. She began her teaching career in Chestertown, Maryland, but was hired by the Cambridge School Department in 1882 (after some pressure from the local African-American community). 

She was a teacher at the Agassiz until her appointment as principal in 1889. In 1916, when she was made master, she became one of two women in the Cambridge school system and the only African-American in New England to hold such a position. To keep up with her field she took courses at Harvard and other institutions, and she in turn taught in the summer normal courses for teachers held at Hampton Institute in Virginia and the Institute for Colored Youth in Cheyney, PA.

She organized the first Parent-Teacher group in the Cambridge Public Schools, introduced new methods of teaching mathematics, began art classes, and inspired the beginning of a museum of science program within the school system.Under her leadership, the Agassiz became the only public school in Cambridge (and perhaps anywhere in the US) to establish an "open-air" classroom (then thought to be good for frailty and pulmonary ills and wise measure for healthy children as well). She was also the first to introduce the practice of hiring a school nurse.

Baldwin's concern for children's well-being is legendary and she was an inspiration to generations of students, parents, educators and community members, not just in the public schools, but beyond.

She belonged to numerous civic and educational organizations. She lectured widely. Her home on Prospect Street was headquarters for various literary activies. There, for years, she held a weekly reading class for Negro students attending Harvard University, which counted among its regulars W.E.B. DuBois. DuBois remembered her reverently and honored her as "Man of the Month" in the NAACP journal, The Crisis in 1917, writing of her: "The school [ Agassiz ] composed of kindergartners and eight grades, is one of the best in the city and is attended by children of Harvard professors and many of the old Cambridge families. The teachers under Miss Baldwin, numbering twelve, and the 410 children are all white. Miss Baldwin thus, without a doubt, occupies the most distinguished position achieved by a person of Negro descent in the teaching world of America, outside cities where there are segregated schools."

Another of Baldwin's students, the poet e.e. cummings, related that his father enrolled him at the Agassiz in 1904 because of Miss Baldwin's reputation. In his book, SIX NONLECTURES, he wrote of her: " Miss Baldwin, the dark lady mentioned in my first nonlecture (and a lady if ever a lady existed) was blessed with a delicious voice, charming manners, and a deep understanding of children. Never did any semidevine dictator more gracefully and easily rule a more unruly and less graceful populace. Her very presence emanated an honour and a glory....From her I marvellingly learned that the truest power is gentleness."

Upon her death in 1922, Baldwin was greatly mourned. Her friends, pupils and colleagues at the school established a scholarship for Agassiz pupils and named the school's auditorium in her memory. The hall was rededicated in 1990. Architectural elements from the hall are retained in the new building and may be seen in the library media center.

On May 21st, 2002 the Cambridge School Committee unanimously voted to rename the Agassiz School to the Maria L. Baldwin School.