Dictionary of Virginia Biography

Maria Blair (August 1841–1 April 1924), educator and civic leader, was born in Richmond, the younger of two children, both daughters, of Thomas Rutherfoord Blair and Margaret Edmundson Blair. Her mother died in 1842, and after the death of her father in 1846, Blair went to live with her uncle and guardian Walter Dabney Blair, a successful wholesale grocer, in a house on East Leigh Street that had been built by Maria Blair's grandfather John Durburrow Blair, a prominent Presbyterian minister. She lived there with members of her extended family for nearly sixty years.

Blair received her education at the Southern Female Institute, one of Richmond's most distinguished private schools for girls, graduating in 1858 with a specialty in literature. During the next fifteen years she probably assisted at home with the care of her aging uncle and aunt and took part in the activities of Richmond's growing Presbyterian women's organizations, such as the Ladies' Society of the Second Presbyterian Church or the Circle of Industry, later the Ladies' Industrial Society, within her own United (later Grace Street) Presbyterian Church.

Sometime in the mid-1870s Blair opened a school for girls in her Leigh Street residence, moving it in 1882 to a location nearby on North Seventh Street. She closed this school in 1884 and sometime in the next few years joined the faculty of the prestigious Richmond Female Seminary, where she taught literature and the history of art until 1897, with the exception of the 1894–1895 school year, when she taught at Mary Johnson's private school on West Grace Street. For the twenty-seven years from 1897 until her death, Blair gave private classes on art, literature, and European culture in her home to young women studying for college entrance examinations or interested in continuing education. Many of her classes prepared young women and men for travel abroad. In the 1890s and early in the 1900s, Blair often accompanied groups of Richmonders making their grand tour of Europe, serving as a guide to the major cultural and historic points of interest. Between 1903 and 1906 she supplemented her income by teaching part time in a school founded by one of her former students, Virginia Randolph Ellett, which later became Saint Catherine's School.

Blair became increasingly active in Richmond's Presbyterian community in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1885 she volunteered to assist Moses Drury Hoge, pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church, with a mission church that he had established in a working-class neighborhood centered on Seventeenth and Main Streets. For years Blair taught Bible classes for women there, taking a particular interest in young girls who worked in local factories, and she spent many hours a week visiting the homes of needy families in the area surrounding the Old Market Mission. In 1890 the mission was organized into an independent church, eventually known as Hoge Memorial Church, and Blair transferred her membership to the new congregation. She took a strong interest in the movement to tie together the many local women's missionary societies in eastern Virginia into what became in 1888 the Woman's Foreign Missionary Union of East Hanover Presbytery. In 1894 she spoke at numerous churches in the presbytery encouraging other churchwomen to organize and affiliate with the new union.

Perhaps encouraged by the success of the church groups to which she belonged, Blair helped create several women's cultural clubs in Richmond. In March 1894 she became a charter member of the Saturday Afternoon Club, a literary discussion group for women that included many notable Richmond writers, educators, and community leaders. Later that same year she joined Mary-Cooke Branch Munford, Jane Crawford Looney Lewis, and eleven other prominent Richmonders in founding the Woman's Club, which quickly became one of the largest and most influential women's organizations in the state. Blair served as vice president of the club from its founding until March 1897. In 1906 the club established an honorary membership category for "distinguished literary women" and selected Blair along with novelists Ellen Glasgow and Mary Johnston. Blair also claimed to have been instrumental, behind the scenes, in encouraging Richmond women to start the Every Monday Club and other cultural and voluntary associations.

Despite her public accomplishments in literary and educational circles, Blair remained a staunch traditionalist regarding the role of women in political life. She steadfastly opposed extending the right to vote to women, and served during the 1910s as a member of the executive council of the Virginia Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage.

During a thirty-five-year career teaching middle- and upper-class Richmonders, Blair earned a reputation as one of the city's premier educators and intellectuals. A petite woman with a gentle and charming manner, she was a gifted lecturer who could hold an audience spellbound. Blair was in great demand as a public speaker and traveled throughout eastern Virginia addressing women's clubs, church groups, patriotic societies, and community organizations. She continued to lecture until a few years before her death and collected and published several of her favorite lectures as Art and Historical Lectures Given by Miss Maria Blair (1921). Maria Blair died of apoplexy in her apartment in Richmond on 1 April 1924 and was buried in Shockoe Cemetery.

Sources Consulted:
Edward Alvey Jr., "Maria Blair: 'A Gentlewoman of Another School,'" Richmond Quarterly 5 (fall 1982): 42–45; Louisa Coleman Gordon Blair, Blairs of Richmond, Virginia: The Descendants of Reverend John Durburrow Blair and Mary Winston Blair, His Wife (1933), 49, 122; Wyndham B. Blanton, The Making of a Downtown Church: The History of the Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, Virginia, 1845–1945 (1945), 146, 165–166, 171, 192, 386, 413–414; Lucy C. Cole, History of Woman's Work in the East Hanover Presbytery (1938), 84; Margaret Meagher, History of Education in Richmond (1939), 83, 85; records of Woman's Club (portrait), Every Monday Club, and Saturday Afternoon Club, all in Virginia Historical Society (VHS), Richmond; Sandra Gioia Treadway, Women of Mark: A History of The Woman's Club of Richmond, Virginia, 1894–1994 (1995); several Blair letters in Bagby Family Papers and Ellett Saint Catherine's Alumnae Association Papers, VHS; age at death of eighty-two years, seven months, in Shockoe Cemetery Interment Register; year of birth on tombstone; variant birth date of Aug. 1843 in United States Census Schedules, Richmond City, 1900, Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C; obituary in Richmond News Leader, 1 Apr. 1924 (portrait); obituary and editorial tribute in Richmond Times-Dispatch, 2 Apr. 1924.

Written for the Dictionary of Virginia Biography by Sandra Gioia Treadway.

How to cite this page:
Sandra Gioia Treadway, "Maria Blair (1841–1924)," Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Library of Virginia (1998– ), published 1998, rev. 2019 (http://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/dvb/bio.php?b=Blair_Maria, accessed [today's date]).

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