Mary Ann Shadd Cary
October 9, 1823 – June 5, 1893
Notable: Publisher & Lawyer
The first of her parent’s 13 children, Mary Ann Shadd was born free in Wilmington, Delaware. Her father, Abraham, had served in the Revolutionary War and found success as a shoemaker while her mother, Harriett, was most likely a homemaker. Her father assisted fugitive slaves as a participant in the Underground Railroad and also worked for William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. The dedication that her parents showed to the abolition of slavery had a tremendous impact on Shadd.
While her family was free, they still experienced discrimination. As Black children, Shadd and her siblings were not allowed to receive an education in Delaware. When Shadd was 10 her parents relocated the family to Pennsylvania where Shadd was enrolled in a Quaker boarding school to complete her education. After leaving school, Shadd spent several years working as a teacher.
Writing to Fredrick Douglass’ North Star newspaper, Shadd took the established abolitionist movement to task for what she perceived as its heavy reliance on rhetoric and lack of action. The letter became Shadd’s first published work and brought her some notoriety. It ruffled some feathers amongst the old guard but carved out space for her as a new voice in the abolitionist movement.
Passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made it possible for runaway slaves to be captured and returned to slave owners even if they escaped to free states. The law also carried penalties for individuals and organizations that assisted fugitive slaves in their escape. This meant that fugitive slaves would need to escape the country entirely and the Shadd family would be in danger if they were caught assisting.
Thus shortly after the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law, Shadd and one of her brothers relocated to Canada. The rest of the Shadd family followed shortly thereafter and they settled in Ontario. Upon arriving in Canada Shadd began writing papers and reports to encourage both free and enslaved Black Americans to move to Canada.
Mary Ann Shadd met and married Thomas J. Cary with whom she had two children before his death four years later. Shadd Cary founded a school that was open to children of all races. She also launched a newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, which made her the first Black woman publisher in North American and the first woman publisher in Canada.
Within the paper, she spoke out against fighting for the abolition of slavery while stopping short of full equality for Black people and integration. She also criticized the trend of supporting fugitive slaves while ignoring the economic needs of free poor Black people. Shadd Cary’s frank outspokenness made enemies in some abolitionist circles and also led to criticism from some Black male leaders and Black women who thought she was too vocal.
When the American Civil War began in 1861, Shadd Cary returned to America to help recruit Northern Black men for the Union Army. After the war, she relocated to Washington, DC where she established a school for the children of the newly freed slaves. Shadd Cary enrolled at the newly established Howard University Law School’s first class and upon graduating in 1870 became the second Black woman in America to earn a law degree.
Over the next few years, Mary Ann Shadd Cary would become involved with the women’s suffrage movement. She spoke at a House Judiciary Committee hearing to advocate for the 14th and 15th Amendments but lamented that they did not give women the right to vote as well. As was the case with her abolitionist efforts, Shadd Cary was both applauded and criticized for her role within the women’s suffrage movement. Within the abolitionist movement, men attempted to push her aside due to her gender and within the suffrage movement White women attempted to push her aside because of her race.
An absolute whirlwind, Mary Ann Shadd Cary died a few months short of her 70th birthday from stomach cancer. She was initially buried at Columbian Harmony Cemetery in Washington, DC but was relocated in the late 1950s with about 40,000 others to National Harmony Memorial Park in Landover, Maryland. The modest brick row house where she lived at the end of her life is now listed as a National Historic Landmark.
- “Mary Ann Shadd Cary.” 2019. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. May 15, 2019. https://www.biography.com/activist/mary-ann-shadd-cary.
- “Mary Ann Shadd Cary.” 2019. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. July 8, 2019. https://www.nps.gov/people/mary-ann-shadd-cary.htm.Specia, Megan. 2018.
- “Overlooked No More: How Mary Ann Shadd Cary Shook Up the Abolitionist Movement.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. June 7, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/06/obituaries/mary-ann-shadd-cary-abolitionist-overlooked.html.
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