The eldest of 13 children, Quaker-educated Mary Ann Shadd was born to free Black parents active in the Underground Railroad, which moved African American slaves from the southern states into the free north and Canada. Like many ambitious young women, she became a teacher, first in Delaware, and then in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. In 1849 she published the pamphlet, Hints to the Colored People of the North, endorsing the self-help agenda of industry, thrift, and schooling. After the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act (1850) allowed runaways to be returned to owners, she moved to Windsor, Ontario, with the support of the American Missionary Society, to support emigration. She was joined by family members, including her sister, Emmaline, who later graduated from Toronto’s Normal School for teachers. Although slavery had been abolished in Canada in 1834 and its Black population dated from the period of New France, racism remained pervasive. In response, some African Canadians favoured segregated communities, a solution that Shadd always believed inferior to integration. She set forth her arguments in A Plea for Emigration; Or, Notes of Canada West (1852) and once again concentrated on education, setting up an integrated private school. She also became the first Black woman in North American to edit a newspaper when she established the Provincial Freeman (1853-59) with the motto ‘Self-Reliance is the True Road to Independence.’ She married a supporter of the newspaper, widower and barber Thomas Carey. They had one daughter, Sally, whose care could be entrusted to maternal kin when her mother, called ‘the Rebel’ by her admirers, moved back and forth across the border in anti-slavery campaigns.
Increasingly, Shadd Cary turned her attention to the build-up to the U.S. Civil War (1860-65). A supporter of the militant abolitionist, John Brown, she edited the memoirs of one Black survivor of his famous raid (A Voice from Harper’s Ferry 1861) and encouraged northern recruitment. After the war she moved to Washington, DC, to teach and to attend law classes at Howard University where she became the first woman to receive this degree (1883). Like many other pioneers, she intended her legal training to demonstrate women’s capacity and to use it in the struggle for female emancipation. To the same end, she joined the National Woman Suffrage Association, speaking at its 1878 convention, and worked with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. While her efforts in the last decades of her life focused on the U.S., she continued to support Canadian reformers, assisting in a suffrage rally in 1881.
In the late 20th century, both Canadian and American feminist and Black civil rights movements claimed her as a heroine, reminding us of the transnational nature of many reform crusades. The Mary Ann Shadd Cary House in Washington, DC, is a National Historic Landmark and the City of Toronto has erected an historical plaque to recognize her contribution. In 1985, Scarborough, Ontario, opened the Mary Shadd Public School. The life of this activist revealed the frequently close links between anti-slavery and women suffrage causes not only in the United States where these are well documented but in Canada as well.
Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. Mary Ann Shadd Cary entry: Overview screen within Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Online, 2006. <http://orlando.cambridge.org/>. 27 November 2012.
Murray, A.L. ‘The Provincial Freeman: a new source for the history of the negro in Canada.’ Ontario History 51 (1959): 25-31.
Rhodes, Jane. Mary Ann Shadd Cary: the Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Silverman, Jason H. ‘Shadd, Mary Ann Camberton (Cary)’. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?id_nbr=6425
“Breaking the Ice: the Mary Ann Shadd Story”, The Scattering of Seeds: the Creation of Canada, director: Sylvia Sweeney (1998), multiple reproductions.