Maria Fearing (1838-1937), a noted Presbyterian missionary, was born into slavery in Alabama. She financed her own education at Talladega College and worked as a domestic servant and an educator for many years after Emancipation. At the age of 56, she became a missionary in the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) at a time when that country was under the brutal control of Belgium's King Leopold II. Fearing spent more than 20 years in Africa, finally retiring at age 78. While in the Congo, she rescued and ran a home for girls and young women who had been kidnapped or sold into slavery, often bartering goods for their freedom.
Fearing was born in 1838 to Jesse and Mary Fearing, both slaves on a plantation owned by Overton Winston in Gainesville, Sumter County. When she reached young adulthood, Fearing was chosen to be a house-servant by the plantation owner's wife, Amanda Winston. Winston was a Presbyterian and taught Fearing to read the Bible and told her tales of missionaries in Africa; she encouraged Fearing to join the Presbyterian church, which Fearing soon did. Freed at the age of 27 at the end of the Civil War, Fearing found employment in the area as a domestic; six years later, after hearing a visiting preacher speak of Talladega College, in Talladega County, she left her position to seek an education there. Although called a college, the school also included an elementary and secondary school, and Fearing began her classes at age 33 with the youngest children at the school.
Fearing completed the ninth grade and then taught in a rural school near Anniston, Calhoun County, eventually buying her own home in Anniston. She returned to Talladega College to serve as assistant matron of the boarding department. In response to a talk by a Presbyterian missionary to Africa, W. H. Sheppard, and remembering the tales of missionaries told to her by Amanda Winston, Fearing volunteered at age 56 to become a missionary in the Congo in central Africa. She sold her home, and with an additional $100 raised by the Congregational Church in Talladega, set sail to England on May 26, 1894. After arriving in Africa, she undertook the two-month trip to her posting, part of it by litter and part by riverboat up the Congo, Kasai, and Lulua rivers to the station in Luebo. Fearing entered a country that had just endured a bloody war in 1892-1893 between forces controlled by Leopold II and by Arab forces out of Zanzibar.
Leopold had been awarded the Congo during the European partition of Africa in 1885, and his eventual victory over Arab forces left him in total control of what was called the Congo Free State. His troops, led by the Force Publique, brutalized the populace to extract quotas in the rubber and ivory trade, killing thousands and cutting off their right hands as proof of the kills. The slave trade also was still rampant. Luebo, in the western part of the nation where Fearing was stationed, was somewhat insulated from the conflicts. On at least two occasions, however, the station was threatened, and Fearing had to prepare for evacuation or invasion. W. H. Sheppard, who had inspired Fearing to go to the Congo, was one of several Presbyterian missionaries who spoke out publicly about Leopold's brutality and eventually helped to bring his control of the region to an end in 1908. Nevertheless, the estimates of the number of people slaughtered during this period run as high as 10 million.
After her arrival, Fearing immediately undertook to help the husband and wife who were running the mission there and began learning the local language; as she progressed in her mastery, she began teaching a Sunday school class. After a year there, she was given an official position and a salary by the Presbyterian Church. Fearing began asking local families to let their daughters stay with her overnight so that she could begin to educate them; as the word got out about Fearing's efforts, more and more young girls were sent to live at the mission. Fearing also began ransoming children from the slave trade, from groups that had kidnapped them or to whom they had been sold, with goods such as scissors, cloth, and other items, and soon housed 40 to 50 young women.
Using her own salary and donations from home, Fearing oversaw the construction of a multi-room house, with six to eight girls per room, each monitored by an older girl. The girls took part in keeping the facility clean and learned basic sanitation, cooking, sewing, and ironing from Fearing. She also held a church service every day after breakfast. The girls attended the missionary day school to learn to read and write. The home eventually became known as Pantops, after a Presbyterian school in Virginia.
In 1906, after 12 years in the Congo, Fearing returned to the United States. After a year at home, she went back to Africa to serve another eight years at the group home she has built. She returned again to the United States in 1915 with her recently married long-time housemate in Africa, Lillian Thomas DeYamperts, and DeYamperts's husband; although she fully intended to go back to Africa, she was urged to retire by church officials and finally did so at age 80.
Fearing lived with the DeYamperts for nearly 10 years and attended a Presbyterian Church in Selma, Dallas County, teaching a Sunday school class there. She fell and broke her hip at age 90, but survived that ordeal to live
another nine years. After her friend Lillian died and Lillian's husband remarried, Fearing returned to Sumter County in 1931
to be cared for by a nephew. She died on May 23, 1937.
Edgerton, Robert B. The Troubled Heart of Africa: A History of the Congo. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002.
Edmiston, Althea Brown. "Maria Fearing: A Mother to African Girls." 1937. Reprinted in Four Presbyterian Pioneers in Congo: Samuel N. Lapsley, William H. Sheppard, Maria Fearing, Lucy Gantt Sheppard, edited by J. Phillips Noble. Anniston, Ala.: First Presbyterian Church of Anniston, 1965.
Jacobs, Sylvia M. "Their 'Special Mission': Afro-American Women as Missionaries to the Congo, 1894-1937." In Black Americans and the Missionary Movement in Africa, edited by Sylvia M. Jacobs. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982.
James P. Kaetz
Published June 18, 2010
Last updated June 18, 2010