In Canada, February is recognized as Black History Month; it’s an opportunity for us to celebrate and honour the countless black Canadians who have shaped our country. This year, UCTE would like to recognize the indomitable spirit of Mary Ann Shadd Cary: a black woman who stood up for justice and equality at every opportunity, defying the social norms of her time and shattering many glass ceilings along the way.
Mary Ann Shadd was born in Delaware in 1823. Her father, Abraham Shadd, was very active in the anti-slavery movement: he participated in several organizations aimed at abolition and improving the lives of emancipated slaves. The Shadds’ Delaware home served as a stop on the underground railroad.
“Mary became aware very early in her life that her parents were routinely hiding freedom-seeking slaves, or giving them shoes to wear on their journey northward to freedom. She knew too that her mother often cooked extra food in case people on the run would stop by their home to eat or to take food supplies with them. She heard some of the discussions about ‘stations’ and ‘conductors’ and knew of her parents’ strong interest in seeing enslaved people live as free as possible.”
In 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act. The law allowed slave-owners to “recuperate” their “property” regardless of whether self-emancipated slaves were in states that allowed slavery or northern “free states”, where slavery had been abolished. The law also posed a great threat to the free black community, whose members were at risk of “being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South without recourse.”
The Act spurred emigration of black Americans to Canada: “between 1850 and 1860, an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 African Americans settled in Canada, increasing the Black population to about 60,000.”
In 1851, Mary Ann Shadd would also emigrate to Canada – to Windsor, Ontario, specifically. There, she would establish a school, teaching children during the day and adults at night. At a time when schools in Canada West (now Ontario) were segregated, Shadd refused to run a segregated school, not only opposing the wishes of some community members, but also the very institution that provided the school with financial support. In a letter to the American Missionary Association, Shadd wrote: “[I] would consider such an attempt to enlist the sympathy of your Society in favour of a [segregated school] decidedly reprehensible.”
One year later, Shadd would publish a 44-page booklet entitled: A plea for emigration, or, Notes of Canada West. Its purpose was to encourage black Americans, both free and fugitive slaves, to emigrate to Canada, where conditions were more conducive to equal treatment under the law.
“[Voting laws] contain no prescriptive provisions, and there are none,” wrote Shadd. “Colored men comply with these provisions and vote in the administration of affairs. There is no difference made whatever; and even in the slight matter of taking the census, it is impossible to get at the exact number of whites or colored, as they are not designated as such.”
That isn’t to say that Canada was free of prejudice or that the Canadian black community was immune from slave-catchers who would sometimes venture north. In fact, Shadd herself helped rescue a fugitive slave in the town of Chatham, Ontario:
“One Sunday, a slave boy without hat, coat, or shoes who had thus far eluded his pursuers, was overtaken in Chatham and about to be carried off. [Shadd] tore the boy from the slave hunters, ran to the courthouse and had the bell rung so violently that the whole town was soon aroused. [Shadd] with her commanding form, piercing eyes, and stirring voice soon had the people as indignant as herself–denouncing in no uncertain terms the outrage perpetrated under the British flag and demanded that these man-hunters be driven from their midst. The result was that the pursuers fled before the infuriated people, happy to get away without bodily harm.”
It was during her time in Windsor that Shadd also founded her own newspaper: The Provincial Freeman. She recruited Samuel Ringgold Ward, a noted black abolitionist, to help establish the paper. While Ward’s name appeared as the paper’s editor, The Provincial Freeman’s true editor was Shadd herself.
Although the paper was clearly her initiative, she was aware that having her name on the masthead could alienate a readership that yielded to the strict gender codes of 19th-century society.
Shadd used her paper to encourage black Americans to emigrate to Canada. The paper was also a vehicle for her to advocate for women’s rights and against slavery and segregation. A year after its debut, Ward would move to Jamaica, and as such, could no longer continue to serve as its “editor”. Shadd took the opportunity to reveal that she was in fact the paper’s true editor – “the first black woman in North America to establish and edit a newspaper”.
The Provincial Freeman would run for 7 years, until 1860.
“Seven years of publishing a newspaper under difficult circumstances was quite an achievement—one that places it among a very small group of Black publications, including the newspapers and writings of Frederick Douglass.”
In her last edition, Shadd (now married, and going by the name Shadd Cary) wrote: “To coloured women, we have a word – we have broken the editorial ice, whether willing or not, for your class in America; so go to editing.”
Shadd Cary would go on to break more glass ceilings. After returning to the United States, she would go on to become the first female law student at Howard University and the first woman to complete her law degree in the United States. She continued to advocate for racial equality and became active in the fight for women’s suffrage.