This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture, and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
Well-educated, vivacious, with determination shining from her sharp eyes, she threw herself singlehanded into the great Canadian pilgrimage when thousands of hunted Black men hurried northward and crept beneath the protection of the lion’s paw. — A description of Mary Ann Shadd Cary by W.E.B. Dubois, via National Park Service
In 1823, Mary Ann Shadd was born free in Wilmington, Delaware, and her activist parents, Abraham and Harriet, raised their 13 children to fight for the abolition of slavery, according to a biography of Shadd on the National Park Service (NPS) website.
Fugitive slaves often found refuge in Shadd’s childhood home. She grew up around notable Underground Railroad conductors including William Still, according to NPS.
“Since Delaware prohibited Black education, the Shadds moved to Pennsylvania where Mary Ann attended a Quaker boarding school until 1839. For the next twelve years, she taught Black children in Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania,” NPS officials wrote in her biography.
As a free Black woman, Shadd experienced sexism and racism in the North, according to the biography.
Segregation and male-only careers limited her social mobility. Skin color stratified the Black community as well.
Light-skinned Blacks, like the Shadds, occupied an elite status with access to more education and economic opportunities.
Despite her privilege, Shadd fought against both internal and external racial discrimination.
In her early 20s, she wrote a letter to Frederick Douglass condemning the lack of activism among free Blacks. Douglass published her letter in his newspaper, The North Star.
Shadd Cary had entered the public sphere, according to the biography.
“The Black Liberation Movement in America has a rich history of African women who were scholars, organizers, activists, and mothers since the 19th century,” educator and activist Dr. Conrad Worrill wrote on Twitter, naming Shadd as a prime example.
“Mary Ann Shadd Cary was an amazing voice for abolition,” tweeted songwriter Rayna Elizabeth.
In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act which deprived fugitive slaves of legal rights and imposed harsh penalties on those who aided fugitive slaves, NPS researchers wrote.
Along with scores of other free and enslaved Blacks throughout the nation, Shadd and her brother Isaac emigrated to Canada.
She settled in Windsor, Ontario, where she published a widely circulated pamphlet, “A Plea for Emigration; or, Notes on Canada West.” The document promoted the many opportunities available to Blacks in Canada.
In 1853, Shadd Cary founded Canada’s first-antislavery newspaper, The Provincial Freeman which encouraged Blacks to flee America for their freedom. With that publication, Shadd Cary became the first Black women in North America to edit and publish a newspaper.
In 1870, Shadd Cary graduated from Howard University with a law degree and became one of the first Black women lawyers in America. She also became the first Black woman in North America to edit and publish a newspaper.
Shadd Cary died of stomach cancer in 1893 and was buried in Columbian Harmony Cemetery in D.C.
Located in the U Street Corridor, Shadd Cary’s brick row house is a lasting reminder of her extraordinary civil rights activism and her defiance of societal constraints, according to the NPS.
In 2018, the University of Windsor in Canada paid tribute to Shadd Cary by displaying a sculpture of the abolitionist outside of its School of Social Work building.
Donna Mayne, a former art director of several mural projects at the university, did the sculpture.
“It’s a real privilege,” Mayne told the Windsor Star newspaper. “Her history here locally helped form Canadian ideals.”
The National Park Service provided historical data for this story.