Mary Ann Shadd Cary was the eldest of thirteen children. She was born on October 9, 1823 in Wilmington, Delaware. Her great-grandfather was Hans Schad, alias John Shadd, who served as Hessian soldier with the British army during the French and Indian War. Her father, Abraham Doras Shadd was trained as a shoemaker and owned a shop in Wilmington and later in the nearby town of West Chester, Pennsylavania. In these two places, he was a conductor on the Underground Railroad and involved in other civil rights activities. He was an active member of the American Anti-Slavery Society and in 1833 he was named President of the National Convention for the Improvement of Free People of Colour.
It’s not surprising that the Shadd family moved to Pennyslavania when it became illegal to educate African American children in the the state of Delaware. In Pennyslavania, Mary attended a Quaker school. In 1840 Mary Ann returned to West Chester where she established a school for black children. She taught in Norristown, Pennsylvania and New York City. Three years later, Abraham was forced to move his family to Canada, settling in North Buxton, Ontario. The reason of this move was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The law threatened to return free northern blacks and escaped slaves into bondage. In 1858, Abraham D. Shadd became the first black man to be elected to political office in Canada.
Mary Ann founded a racially integrated school in Windsor with the support of the American Missionary Association. She ran The Provincial Freeman, an anti-slavery newspaper which made her the first female editor in North America. Her brother, Isaac managed the business affairs of the newspaper and at his home he hosted meetings to plan the raid on Harper’s Ferry.
Mary Ann traveled around Canada and the United States, an advocate for full racial integration though education and self-reliance. She promoted emigration to Canada amongst freemen. In 1855 when she attempted to participate in the Philadelphia Colored Convention, the assembly debated whether or not to even allow her to sit as a delegate. She was viewed as a controversial figure becuase of her advocacy for emigration. By 15 votes she was admitted and according to Frederick Douglass’ Paper, although she gave a speech advocating for emigration, she was so well received that the delegates voted that she be given ten more minutes to speak. Unfortunately, her presence at the Convention was omitted from the minutes most likely because she was a woman. How sad. Here we have blacks who know what it’s like to be discriminated because of color and yet they were discriminating against Mary Ann because she was a woman. How difficult it was to be a black woman in those days. She faced prejudice because of her color and prejudice because of her gender.
In 1856 Mary Ann married a Toronto barber named Thomas F. Cary who was involved with the Provincial Freeman. They had a daughter and a son. After Thomas died in 1860, Mary Ann and their children returned to the United States.
During the Civil War, at the request of abolitionist, Martin Delany, she served as a recruiting officer to enlist black volunteers for the Union Army in the state of Indiana. After the Civil War, she went back to teaching. She taught in the black schools in Wilmington before she moved to Washington, D.C. where she taught in public schools and attended Howard University School of Law. In 1883, at the age of 60, she graducated as a lawyer, becoming the second black woman in the United States to earn a law degree. Age didn’t slow this remarkable woman down. Not only was she writing for newspapers such as National Era and The People’s Advocate but she organized the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise. She joined the National Woman Suffrage Association where she worked alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for women’s suffrage. They testified before the Judiciary Committee of the House of the Representatives.
Mary Ann Shadd died in Washington, D.C. on June 5, 1893. She was interred at Columbian Harmony Cemetery. She left behind her a great legacy. Her former residence in the U Street Corridor was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1976. In 1987 the National Women’s History Project designated her a Women’s History Month Honoree and Canada honored her by designating her a Person of National Historic Significance.
Like her father, Mary Ann was an advocate for civil rights –the right to freedom and education among blacks. She was an anti-slavery activist, journalist, teacher and lawyer. She was a wife and mother. She was a wonderful example to her children. She taught them that everyone is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. No one should have their freedom and right to education taken away from them.
Notes to Women salute this amazing woman who showed us that the things we sometimes take for granted are to be cherished. Freedom and education are two things we should fiercely guard. There are some countries in the world where human rights are violated. Women are treated as second class citizens or worse, girls are denied education and Christians are denied the freedom to worship. Be thankful for the freedoms you currently have.
“Self-reliance Is the Fine Road to Independence.”