Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893) was an antislavery activist, educator, and lawyer as well as a newspaper publisher, editor, and journalist. She was the first Black woman to publish a newspaper, The Provincial Freedom, when she moved to Canada. Shadd Cary is also known for publishing the pamphlet, A Plea for Emigration; or Notes of Canada West, in Its Moral, Social, and Political Aspect, which encouraged African Americans to emigrate to Canada rather than remain in the United States.

Biography

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893) was a trailblazing Black feminist, activist, journalist, publisher, educator, and lawyer whose achievements can be traced across Canada and the United States. She was a strong advocate for emigration to Canada in light of the racism and discrimination that free and enslaved African Americans faced as well as due to the possibility of (re)enslavement.

Born free in Wilmington, Delaware Mary Ann Shadd Cary was the eldest of 13 children born to Abraham Shadd and Harriet Burton Parnell. The Shadds were a prominent Black abolitionist family, heavily involved in the Underground Railroad and anti-slavery efforts, including the American Anti-Slavery Society. The family played active roles in the Colored Conventions movement, which throughout much of the nineteenth century gathered African Americans across the United States and Canada to participate in political meetings held at the state and national levels in order to campaign for civil and human rights.

The family moved to Pennsylvania after educating African American children in Delaware was declared illegal. Shadd Cary later proceeded to teach in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New York City. Shadd also began to write and contribute to Black newspapers, notably writing to Frederick Douglass to critique the tendency for the Colored Conventions to be focused on much talk, but little action.

With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required Northern states to cooperate in sending fugitive slaves back into bondage and threatened the freedom of free northern Blacks, the Shadd family emigrated to Canada. There, Shadd Cary began her efforts to encourage free Black settlement in Canada, publishing in 1852 her pamphlet, A Plea for Emigration; Or Notes of Canada West, in Its Moral, Social, and Political Aspect: with Suggestions respecting Mexico, West Indies and Vancouver’s Island for the Information of Colored Emigrants. She also founded an integrated school for children with the aid of the American Missionary Association.

In 1853, Mary Ann Shadd Cary became the first Black woman to publish a newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, which provided the perspective of Black Canadian emigrants and anti-slavery activists. Concerned about resistance from readers if they discovered that a Black woman was editor and publisher of the newspaper, Shadd Cary listed Samuel Ringgold Ward, a prominent Black abolitionist, as the publisher and abbreviated her own name to hide her gender. To raise funds for the newspaper, she traveled throughout the United States and Canada but the newspaper ultimately ran for only four years due to financial challenges and criticism once Shadd Cary decided to include her name on the masthead.

Outside of traveling to gain support for her newspaper, Shadd Cary was also an active anti-slavery speaker. She fought to speak in the 1855 Philadelphia Colored Convention, despite the fact that women were not permitted to do so. Ultimately, the male delegates voted to allow her to speak but her speech was not included in the convention minutes.

When the Civil War broke out, Martin Delany, a Black abolitionist, physician, and writer who was also the first African American to become a field officer in the United States Army, invited Shadd Cary to recruit Black soldiers to the Union Army in Indiana. Once the war was over, she moved back to the United States with her children and proceeded to teach at public schools in Washington D.C. for 15 years. Shadd Cary later attended Howard University School of Law, graduating in 1883 at the age of 60, becoming one of the first Black women to earn a law degree.

In 1880, she organized the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise, which advocated for Black women’s equal rights. She was also active in the National Woman Suffrage Association, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s legacy encompasses a long life of activism, advocating for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and promoting Black women’s participation as political thinkers, professionals, and intellectuals. Her archives are scattered throughout the United States and Canada, emphasizing her tireless political and social movements in pursuit of freedom and equality.

B&W photo of woman
Portrait of Mary Ann Shadd Cary. Source: New York Times.

Additional Shadd Cary Resources


We look forward to cultivating more Shadd Cary resources as we continue to build out the BWOA website. Coming soon:

• Transcribe Shadd Cary 2023

• Exhibit: Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s Herstory in the Colored Conventions