Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Roberta Sheridan (ca. 1864 - d. 1918)
MSA SC 3520-12385
African American Teacher, Baltimore County and Baltimore City

Biography:

Roberta Sheridan, a lifelong teacher, was born in Baltimore County and lived in Baltimore City with her parents throughout her life.1 Sheridan’s marriage license and death certificate reflect different birth years, but by consulting other records, it is safe to presume she was born around 1864.2 Unfortunately, Baltimore only began keeping birth records in 1875, making it difficult to determine her exact date of birth. Sheridan worked as a teacher in the public school system and was incredibly dedicated to the public education of black children. Sheridan remained close to her family and she continued to live with her parents throughout her life, even when she was married.

Roberta and her parents were lifelong residents of Baltimore City. Her parents, Daniel and Arietta sent Roberta to “colored high and grammar school, and colored normal school.”3  Presumably, she discovered her talent for teaching and love of education through her own schooling. Roberta grew up on Chestnut Street, which is now known as Colvin Street. In 1890, her family moved to Pine Street, where they lived for over twenty years. 

The historical record reveals some aspects of Sheridan’s personal life. She married another teacher and her coworker George W. Biddle on July 26, 1892.4 The two had worked together at least since 1889 when Sheridan was appointed to the teaching staff of School No. 9 and Biddle was identified as the “first colored principal in the city,” although he most likely taught classes alongside the other African American teachers.5 The couple had one daughter, Hester Maud Biddle who was born on June 24, 1893.6 Divorce records reveal that Sheridan and Biddle separated after two years.7 Sheridan asked Biddle to leave and claimed he abused her. She sued for divorce twice and was denied twice.  Finally, Biddle sued Sheridan, claiming that she deserted him and he was granted the divorce in 1903.8 After this point, Sheridan began using her maiden name again.9

Sheridan’s father, Daniel died of heart disease in 1899 and was buried in Laurel Cemetery on Christmas day.10 Roberta and her daughter Hester continued to live with her mother, Arietta. They rented a house on Pine Street and Sheridan was listed as a teacher at a public school.11

As an African American teacher in the age of segregation, Roberta Sheridan faced difficulties finding employment because of racial discrimination. However, her perseverance is evident in her teaching career; there are records of her teaching from 1883 until her death in 1918. She supported the movement to garner governmental support of education for black children in Baltimore. Prior to 1867 African American children were educated largely in churches, private schools, or free schools organized by the American Missionary Association and the Association for the Improvement of Colored People.12 When these schools were turned over to Baltimore City in the fall of 1867 students were taught exclusively by white teachers.13

Black teachers and leaders in Baltimore continuously challenged the city to set up equal education for their children and asked for equal opportunity to be employed by these schools. Most did not understand why if they paid taxes, they did not receive equal public services.14 The city council was incredibly slow in responding to black leaders, and by 1885, many were “beginning to feel discouraged. After eighteen years of consistent protest, not one black had been hired to teach, and there was no apparent indication that any would ever be.”15 After more organizing, a speech by Frederick Douglass and with the unrelenting support of ministers from the community, the Brotherhood of Liberty group and its Committee on Education were finally able to make inroads with the Mayor and City Council. This committee had many distinguished members, including Reverend J. W. Beckett, the pastor of the Bethel AME Church, where Sheridan and her family were members. As a direct result of the pressure black leaders and teachers placed on the council, in 1888, the council passed an ordinance that authorized the Board of School Commissioners to employ black teachers. 

Although this was an incredible step forward for black education in Baltimore, the ordinance failed to “make provisions for the gradual introduction of black teachers into the schools already under the control of white faculties” and even segregated the schools further by not allowing black teachers to work with white teachers.16

Roberta Sheridan was selected as one of the first African Americans to teach in a city public school. In the fall of 1888 Sheridan was appointed as a teacher in the “Waverly Colored Public School.” The Baltimore Sun ran a quick piece on the appointment, titled “First Colored Public School Teacher.”17 The article went on, stating that “another colored teacher will be appointed next week.”18 In April of 1889, the Sun ran another article about the school, describing students and teachers participating in school activities. They described Sheridan’s school briefly: “At annex colored school, No. 1, Waverly, the principal Geo. W. Biddle, Misses Roberta Sheridan and Nannie B. Grooms each gave a reading before the scholars, and each teacher then planted a tree in the yard. The trees were given the names of Phoebe Carey, Alice Carey, and Harriet Beecher Stowe.”19 

Roberta Sheridan’s teaching career reveals her strong devotion to education. She was one of the first African American public school teachers in Baltimore City and she worked arduously to educate African American students during segregation. Many records emphasize Sheridan's teaching position in Baltimore City in 1889, where at first she worked with two other African American teachers, George W. Biddle and Nannie B. Grooms.20 However, Sheridan had previously taught with other African American teachers in Baltimore County, during the 1882-1883 and 1887-1888 school years.21 Some African American teachers taught in Carroll County as well.22 Clearly, the barrier of race existed for teachers seeking positions in public schools, but African American teachers had been employed elsewhere prior to Sheridan's appointment to a city school in 1889.

One other interesting facet of Sheridan’s life is revealed through the city directories. Sheridan appears in 10 different directories dated from 1890 to 1918, with 5 different addresses but always with the same profession: “teacher.”23

Roberta Sheridan was also very active in the church community. She was married at the Sharpe Street African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church by Reverend E.W.S. Peck.24 She and her parents were members of the Bethel AME Church, where Roberta taught Sunday school. Later, she also taught Sunday school at St. John’s, another AME church.25 At St. John’s, she was elected Superintendent of the Juvenile department in 1902.26

Sheridan was offered the position of assistant superintendent of Sunday School at the Bethel Church in the late 1890s. She declined because her immediate supervisor fought with a former pastor, who was a very good friend of hers. Consequently, she was not reappointed as a Sunday School teacher "on the grounds that if her affections for the former pastor were so deep...she could not serve under a brother who had fought him in one capacity, she could not consistently be expected to serve under the same brother even though in a different capacity."27 Soon thereafter, she began teaching at St. John's. The Bethel Church leaders were offended by her choice, and charged her with violating the Discipline, or the rules of the Methodist Episcopal Church. She appeared before a committee of church leaders, but "walked away without further ceremony" after a heated disagreement with the chairman of the committee.28

In 1914, Roberta, Hester, and her mother Arietta moved to 1441 North Carey Street. Roberta lived here until she died in June 1918.29 She was still teaching in the city, at School No. 108 on South Caroline Street.30 Her death certificate lists her as “Bertha E.,” presumably a nickname. It details that she died of “natural insufficiency” and “shock.”31 She is buried in Laurel Cemetery, the same place as her father. Sheridan’s mother, Arietta was still living in 1920 and is listed as an insane patient living at Bay View Hospital.32

Roberta Sheridan's appointment as the first black teacher to Waverly Colored Public School was a huge achievement on the part  of the black teachers, leaders, and community members that had fought for equal education for years in Baltimore. As historian Leroy Graham wrote, "With the acceptance of black teachers and a publicly funded high school, the blacks of Baltimore could breathe a sigh of relief after such a long and difficult struggle."33


1. "Prominent Teacher Dead," Baltimore Afro-American, 28 June 1918.

2. BALTIMORE CITY COURT OF COMMON PLEAS, (Marriage Record), 1865-1914, Geo. W. Biddle, 26 July 1892, JTG 4, ff. 12, MSA CM 206-12, CR 10283-1. Also see Roberta's death certificate, BALTIMORE CITY HEALTH DEPARTMENT BUREAU OF VITAL STATISTICS (Death Record), 1874-1972, Bertha E. Sheridan, 24 June 1918, MSA CM 1132-132, no. 17452.

3. First Colored Public School Teacher,” Baltimore Sun, 5 October 1888.

4. BALTIMORE CITY COURT OF COMMON PLEAS, (Marriage Record), 1865-1914, Geo. W. Biddle, 26 July 1892.

5. "CITY PAYS A TRIBUTE TO GEORGE BIDDLE," Baltimore Sun, 26 June 1926. The article indicates that most principals at "colored" schools were at one time members of the faculty.

6. BALTIMORE CITY CIRCUIT COURT (Equity Docket B, Divorces and Foreclosures), 1875-1982, MSA T464 No. 2239B.

7. BALTIMORE CITY CIRCUIT COURT (Equity Docket B, Divorces and Foreclosures), 1875-1982, MSA T464 No. 7251B.

8. Ibid.

9. "Prominent Teacher Dead," 1918.

10. BALTIMORE CITY HEALTH DEPARTMENT OF VITAL STATISTICS (Death Record), 1874-1972, Daniel Sheridan, 22 December, 1899, MSA CM 1132-68, no. 22666.

11. U.S. CENSUS BUREAU (Census Record, MD), for Roberta Sheridan, 1910, Baltimore City, Ward 17, Page 7B, Line 72, MSA SM 61-434.

12. Bettye C. Thomas, "Public Education and Black Protest in Baltimore," Maryland Historical Magazine, Vol. 71, No. 3, Fall 1976, 381.

13. Ibid., 383.

14. Ibid., 382.

15. Ibid., 385.

16. Ibid., 385.

17. "First Colored Public School Teacher," 1888.

18. Ibid.

19. "The Colored Schools," Baltimore Sun, 11 April 1889.

20. Roberta B. Sheridan is no longer listed as a colored teacher for Baltimore County in the annual report ending in September 1889. At this point she had begun teaching in Baltimore City. "The Twenty-third Annual Report of the State Board of Education showing the Condition of Public Schools of Maryland for the Year Ending September 30, 1889," (Annapolis: George T. Melvin, State Printer, 1890), 30.

21. "The Seventeenth Annual Report of the State Board of Education Showing the Condition of the Public Schools of Maryland for the Year Ending September 30, 1883," (Annapolis: James Young, State Printer, 1884), 28. Roberta Sheridan taught at School #2 in District 1. George W. Biddle taught at School #3 in District 9.

22. Other Annual Reports for Maryland public schools reveal that there were African American teachers throughout Maryland prior to 1889. For example, in Baltimore and Carroll County there were African American teachers in 1880 and 1881: "The Fifteenth Annual Report of the State Board of Education Showing the Condition of Public Schools of Maryland for the Year Ending September 20, 1881," (Annapolis: Steam Press of L.F. Colton, 1882), 106, 146, and "The Fourteenth Annual Report of the State Board of Education Showing the Condition of the Public Schools of Maryland for the Year Ending September 30, 1880," (Annapolis, Iglehart & Riley, 1881), 93-94, 127.

23.  R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore City Directory, 1890, p. 1105. R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore City Directory, 1905, p. 1551. R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore City Directory, 1906, p. 1824. R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore City Directory, 1908, p. 1774.  R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore City Directory, 1909, p. 1789. R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore City Directory, 1911, p. 1798. R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore City Directory, 1913, p. 1874. R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore City Directory, 1914, p. 1777.  R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore City Directory, 1915, p. 1839. R.L. Polk & Co.’s Baltimore City Directory, 1918, p. 1881.

24. BALTIMORE CITY COURT OF COMMON PLEAS, (Marriage Record), 1865-1914, Geo. W. Biddle, 26 July 1892.

25. MARYLAND STATE ARCHIVES, Special Collections, (Bethel African Methodist Episcopalian Church Collection), MSA SC 2562, M 1383-1, p.195-198.

26. "Officers Elected," Baltimore Afro-American, 1902.

27. MARYLAND STATE ARCHIVES, Special Collections, (Bethel African Methodist Episcopalian Church Collection), MSA SC 2562, M 1383-1, p.195-198.

28. MARYLAND STATE ARCHIVES, Special Collections, (Bethel African Methodist Episcopalian Church Collection), MSA SC 2562, M 1383-1, p.195-198.

29. BALTIMORE CITY HEALTH DEPARTMENT BUREAU OF VITAL STATISTICS (Death Record), 1874-1972, Bertha E. Sheridan, 24 June 1918.

30. "Prominent Teacher Dead," 1918.

31. BALTIMORE CITY HEALTH DEPARTMENT BUREAU OF VITAL STATISTICS (Death Record), 1874-1972, Bertha E. Sheridan, 24 June 1918.

32. U.S. CENSUS BUREAU (Census Record, MD), for Arietta Sheridan, 1920, Baltimore City, Ward 26, District 439, Page 13A, Line 15, MSA SM61-479.

33. Leroy Graham, Baltimore: The Nineteenth Century Black Capital (Lanham: University Press of American, 1982), 222.


Edited by Allison Seyler, December 2012.
Original research and biography completed by Claire Norcio.

Special thanks to Ms. Joan Stanne for suggestions and citations.

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