On William O. Winston’s Oak Hill Plantation outside Gainesville, Alabama, Maria Fearing worked as a house servant. She was born into slavery on this plantation on July 26, 1838, and after being chosen to be a house servant, she spent a lot of time with the plantation owner’s wife and the other children. Amanda Winston, the plantation owner’s wife, was a Presbyterian who taught her children the Presbyterian catechism and told them Bible stories and stories of missionaries in Africa. Fearing was deeply moved by her stories about Africa.
Fearing was freed after the end of the Civil War at the age of 27 and worked as a live-in maid until learning to read and write at the age of 33. According to history, she was able to become a teacher by working her way through the Freedman’s Bureau School in Talladega (Talladega College). She went on to teach youngsters in Calhoun County’s rural schools. She did this for a long time.
Fearing attended a Talladega College lecture by Presbyterian missionary to Africa, William Sheppard, in 1891. Sheppard spoke at the college about his service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire) and begged for volunteers to accompany him back to the Congo. Fearing was 56 years old at the time, an age when most people would consider retiring, yet she volunteered to serve as a missionary in the Congo, Central Africa.
She was initially turned down, but then approved as a self-supporting missionary. Her only asset at the time was a house she had purchased in Anniston, which she willingly sold. Fearing was able to pay for the travel from New York to the Congo in May 1894 with that money and a commitment of $100.00 from the women of the Congregational Church in Talladega. The Southern Presbyterian missionary board recognized her as a full missionary and began sending her pay after she supported herself for the first two years.
Fearing spent nearly two months traveling from New York to a mission site in Luebo, Congo. Fearing, along with Sheppard and three other African Americans, had to change ships in London before arriving in the Congo. They had to travel 1200 miles interior to their mission site in Luebo after arriving in the Congo by wagon, riverboat, and canoe. Fearing and the crew began caring for four young Congolese girls not long after they arrived.
Fearing had arrived in the Congo following a brutal conflict in 1892-1893 between Leopold II’s army and Arab forces from Zanzibar. For his genocide against the people of the Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), which he deemed his personal property, including their lands and minerals, Belgian King Leopold II, who reigned from 1865 to 1909, has been compared to Adolf Hitler.
Untold millions of Congolese were slain by Leopold’s private colonial force, Force Publique, which he used to rule a region the size of Western Europe and 76 times the size of Belgium. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, where Africa was split among European colonists, he was given the area by 14 European nations and the United States. After proclaiming his initial goal of using his so-called private charitable organization, the International African Association, to bring humanitarian help and civilization to the locals, Leopold II’s claim to the Congo as his personal property was accepted.
For the individuals who were tortured, raped, and slain by the Force Publique in order to carefully harvest natural rubber for export, it was a nightmare. Hands of individuals who failed to reach their rubber quotas, including children’s, were amputated.
Thousands of people were sold into slavery as well. Fearing would assist orphaned young girls and those who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Before founding the Pantops Home for Girls, she mastered the Baluba-Lulua language, assisted in Bible translation, and preached Christianity in local villages. She used her own money and gifts to help build the multi-room mansion, which she used to care for orphaned and enslaved young girls.
Each room at Pantops had six to eight girls in it, and each room was supervised by an older girl. Fearing instilled in the girls the skills of reading, writing, homemaking, arithmetic, gardening, and the Christian religion. The girls quickly gave her the nickname “mama wa Mputu” to demonstrate their gratitude (mother from far away).
Fearing did return to the Congo after a lecture trip in Alabama in 1905 to gather financial support for the missions. Overall, the teacher and missionary spent more than two decades in the Congo. In 1915, she was advised to take a leave of absence due to health concerns. At the age of 78, she retired and was awarded the Loving Cup by the Southern Presbyterian Church. Fearing returned to Alabama and began teaching in a Selma religious school. She died on May 23, 1937, at the age of 98, in Sumter County.