Maria Fearing worked as a house servant on William O. Winston’s Oak Hill Plantation, near Gainesville, Alabama. Born into slavery on this plantation on July 26, 1838, she spent a lot of time with the plantation owner’s wife and the other children after being chosen to be a house servant. The plantation owner’s wife, Amanda Winston, was a Presbyterian who taught her children and Fearing the Presbyterian catechism, told them stories from the Bible and tales about missionaries in Africa. Her stories about Africa made a great impression on Fearing.
Freed at the age of 27 at the end of the Civil War, Fearing worked as a live-in maid before learing to read and write at 33 years old. History says she was able to work her way through the Freedman’s Bureau School in Talladega (Talladega College) to become a teacher. She later began teaching children in the rural schools of Calhoun County. She did this for some years.
In 1891, Fearing heard Presbyterian missionary to Africa William Sheppard speak at Talladega College. Sheppard spoke at the college about his service in the Congo (Zaire) and asked the audience for volunteers to return with him to the Congo. Fearing was 56 years old at that time, an age when most people would be thinking about retirement, but she volunteered to become a missionary in the Congo in central Africa.
She was denied at first, before being approved as a self-supporting missionary. The only possession she had then was a house she had bought in Anniston, but she gladly sold it. With that money and a pledge for $100.00 she received from the women of the Congregational Church in Talladega, Fearing was able to pay for the trip from New York to the Congo in May 1894. After supporting herself over the first two years, the Southern Presbyterian missionary board recognized her as a full missionary and began to send her a salary.
Fearing’s trip from New York to a mission station in Luebo, in the Congo, lasted over two months. Fearing, alongside Sheppard and three other African Americans, changed ships in London during the trip before they reached the Congo. After they reached the Congo, they had to travel 1200 miles inland, by wagon, riverboat, and canoes, to their mission station in Luebo. Not too long after their arrival, Fearing and the team started to cater to four young Congolese girls.
Fearing had entered the Congo after a bloody war in 1892-1893 between forces controlled by Leopold II and by Arab forces out of Zanzibar. The King of the Belgians, Leopold II, who ruled from 1865 to 1909, has been described as worse than Adolf Hitler for his genocide against the people of the Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) who he considered as his personal property including their lands and minerals. An undetermined number of Congolese, ranging in the millions, were killed in the hands of Leopold’s private colonial militia of 90,000 men called Force Publique, which he used to run the region that is the size of Western Europe and 76 times larger than Belgium.
The area was handed over to him by 14 European nations and the United States at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 where Africa was shared among European colonists. Leopold II’s claim to the Congo as his personal property was recognized after expressing his initial goal of using his so-called private charitable organization, the International African Association, to offer humanitarian assistance and civilization to the natives.
It was rather a horror for the people who were tortured, raped and killed by the Force Publique in order for them to diligently collect natural rubber for export. Hands of those who couldn’t meet their rubber quotas were severed including those of children.
Thousands were also sold into slavery. Fearing would help young girls who are orphans, and rescue those who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. She first learned the Baluba-Lulua language, helped translate the Bible, promoted Christianity throughout neighboring villages before creating the Pantops Home for Girls. She used her own salary and donations to see to the construction of the multi-room house, where she took care of several young girls who were orphans and those who had been sold into slavery.
Fearing bartered goods such as salt, tools, and trinkets for their freedom. At Pantops, there were six to eight girls per room, and each room was monitored by an older girl. Fearing taught the girls reading, writing, homemaking skills, arithmetic, gardening, and the tenets of the Christian faith. To show their appreciation, the girls soon nicknamed her, “mama wa Mputu” (mother from far away).
Fearing did go back home to Alabama in 1905 for a speaking tour to raise financial support for the missions but returned to the Congo. All in all, the teacher and missionary was in the Congo for more than twenty years. She was encouraged to take a leave of absence in 1915 due to health reasons. She retired at the age of 78 and was honored with the Loving Cup by the Southern Presbyterian Church. Having returned to Alabama, Fearing taught at a church school in Selma. She died on May 23, 1937 while at Sumter County at the age of 98.