Stewart, Thomas McCants

December 28, 1853–January 7, 1923

Lawyer, civil rights leader. Born in Charleston on December 28, 1853, to free black parents, George Gilchrist Stewart and Anna Morris, T. McCants Stewart achieved national distinction as an African American leader in the late nineteenth century. He attended the Avery Normal Institute before enrolling in Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1869. There, Stewart distinguished himself as a student and contributed articles to the Washington New National Era, an African American newspaper. Dissatisfied with the quality of instruction at Howard, he enrolled in the University of South Carolina in 1874. In December 1875 Stewart graduated with B.A. and LL.B. degrees. In 1876 Stewart married Charlotte Pearl Harris, the daughter of Reverend W. D. Harris, a Methodist minister. The couple had two sons and a daughter before the marriage ended in divorce. In 1893 he married Alice Franklin. Stewart’s second marriage produced three daughters.

Stewart taught mathematics at the State Agricultural and Mechanical College in Orangeburg between 1877 and 1878, and shortly thereafter he joined the law firm of South Carolina congressman Robert Brown Elliott. In 1877 Stewart also became an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the following year he was admitted to the Princeton Theological Seminary. Although Stewart did not graduate from the seminary, he became pastor of the Bethel AME Church in New York in 1880.

In New York, Stewart emerged as a national civil rights leader, a respected attorney, and a writer. He argued several important civil rights cases before the New York courts, served on the Brooklyn Board of Education, and contributed to the New York Freeman, an important African American newspaper. Stewart also organized the African American vote for the Democratic Party, making him one of the most visible black Democrats in the nation. In 1883 he migrated to Liberia to serve as a professor at Liberia College and to encourage African American immigration to the young republic. By 1885 Stewart returned to New York. Although disillusioned about the future of immigration to Africa, he wrote about his experience in a book, Liberia: The Americo-African Republic (1886).

Restless, but also struggling to earn a living as an attorney in New York, Stewart relocated to Hawaii in 1898. There he hoped to advance his legal practice and organize the Republican Party, which he supported after having renounced his Democratic sympathies several years earlier. After achieving little success, Stewart relocated to London in 1905 and in 1906 returned to Liberia, where he was appointed an associate justice on the Liberian Supreme Court in 1911. His outspokenness and criticism of Liberia’s president resulted in his removal from the court in 1914.

Stewart returned to London, where he hoped to live out his life. But in 1921 he relocated to the Virgin Islands, a newly acquired United States territory. Regarded as an elder statesman, Stewart established a legal practice with Christopher Payne, one of the most experienced attorneys on the islands. One year after his arrival, Stewart supported a delegation of Virgin Islanders who petitioned the U.S. Congress to provide greater freedom to the inhabitants. On his return voyage to St. Thomas in December 1922, he contracted pneumonia. Stewart died in St. Thomas on January 7, 1923.

Broussard, Albert S. African American Odyssey: The Stewarts, 1853–1963. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Wynes, Charles E. “T. McCants Stewart: Peripatetic Black South Carolinian.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 80 (October 1979): 311–17.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Stewart, Thomas McCants
  • Coverage December 28, 1853–January 7, 1923
  • Author
  • Keywords Lawyer, civil rights leader, achieved national distinction as an African American leader in the late nineteenth century, Avery Normal Institute, Liberia: The Americo-African Republic (1886),
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date July 13, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 25, 2022
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