October 9, 1823 – Birth of Mary Ann Shadd, 1st African-American Publisher in North America & 1st Woman Publisher in Canada

Mary Ann Shadd, the eldest of 13 children, was born in Delaware on this day in history to free African-Americans. Her parents were active in the Underground Railroad and their home frequently served as a refuge for fugitive slaves.

When it became illegal to educate African-American children in the state of Delaware, the Shadd family moved to Pennsylvania, where Mary attended a Quaker Boarding School. In 1840, after being away at school, Mary Ann returned to East Chester and established a school for black children.

In 1848, Frederick Douglass asked readers in his newspaper, “The Northern Star,” to offer their suggestions on what could be done to improve life for African-Americans. Mary Ann, then only 25 years of age, wrote to him to say, “We should do more and talk less.” She expressed frustration that speeches and resolutions had not produced many tangible results. Douglass published her letter in his paper.

Mary Ann Shadd, via Library and Archives Canada, C-029977

When the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 in the United States threatened to return escaped slaves into bondage but also threatened free blacks, Mary Ann and her brother Isaac moved to Windsor, Ontario, across the border from Detroit. This is where Mary Ann’s efforts to create free black settlements in Canada first began.

While in Windsor, she founded a racially integrated school with the support of the American Missionary Association. Public education in Ontario was not open to black students at the time. Mary Ann offered daytime classes for children and youth, and evening classes for adults.

In 1853, Mary Ann Shadd founded an anti-slavery paper, called “The Provincial Freeman.” The paper’s slogan was: “Devoted to antislavery, temperance and general literature.” It was published weekly, and the first issue was published in Toronto, Ontario, on March 24, 1853. She persuaded a black abolitionist man and a male white clergyman to lend their names to the masthead to provide legitimacy that a woman’s name could not.

A remembrance of Mary Ann Shadd in the New York Times points out:

Her progressive approach and unorthodox outlook alienated some people. She criticized abolitionists who did not fight for full equality and instead supported segregated schools and communities. She also denounced refugee associations that gathered funds to support fugitive slaves but turned a blind eye to free blacks who were forced to live in poverty.”

The paper ran for four years, before financial challenges forced the paper to fold.

After the demise of the “Freeman,” Mary Ann Shadd Cary (she had married Toronto businessman Thomas F. Cary in 1856) was hired by Martin Delany as perhaps the only woman to recruit Black soldiers during the Civil War. She then settled in Washington, D.C., founding a school for the children of freed slaves, believing that education offered them more opportunities.

In 1869, she embarked on her second career, becoming the first woman to enter Howard University’s law school, graduating in 1870.  She was the first African-American woman to obtain a law degree and among the first women in the United States to do so.

She fought alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for women’s suffrage, testifying before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives in January 1874 and becoming the first African-American woman to cast a vote in a national election.

After a lifetime of achievements and firsts, Shadd Cary died on June 5, 1893. Mary Ann Shadd Cary has been designated a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada, one of her many posthumous honors.

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