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Mary Ann Shadd

story provided by Windsor’s Community Museum

Mary Ann Shadd, editor of a weekly newspaper
for the black community of Canada West in 1883.
Photo courtesy National Archives of Canada

Mary Ann Shadd was born on October 9, 1823, to a family of free black abolitionists living in the slave state of Delaware. In 1833, the Shadd family moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania where Mary attended a Quaker school for black children. After completing her own studies in 1839, Mary became a teacher at the age of 16. For the next decade, she established or taught in schools for black children in several free and slave states.

When the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Mary migrated northward to Canada to escape the threat of unlawful enslavement. In 1851, she settled in Windsor and opened a school for black refugees. Mary described Windsor as a hostile and segregated place. “This is by universal consent,” she wrote, “the most destitute community of coloured people, known in this province.”

During the 1850s, Mary was one of the most outspoken anti-slavery activist in the region. She felt strongly that “caste” or segregated institutions were inappropriate in a free country and only contributed to racial discrimination. Mary believed that integration was the surest route to “race improvement” of Canadian blacks. To promote these views, Mary helped found the Provincial Freeman, a weekly newspaper for the black community of Upper Canada that began publication in 1853. Although listed on the masthead as “M.A. Shadd, Publishing Agent,” in reality Mary was the editor of the paper.

In 1854 Mary decided to correct the “misapprehension” that M.A. Shadd was a man. “It was,” she wrote,“a mistake occasioned, no doubt, by the habit we have of using initials. We would simply correct, for the future, our error, by giving here the name in full (Mary A. Shadd) as we do not like the Mr. and Esq., by which we are so often addressed.”

This revelation unleashed a wave of “sex discrimination” that threatened to close the Provincial Freeman. Mary urged readers not to abandon their support of the paper simply because “it had editors of the unfortunate sex.” After advising readers that a new “gentleman editor” had been secured for the paper, Mary said “Adieu” to Freeman readers.

In the late 1850s, Mary wed Thomas F. Cary of Toronto and resumed her teaching career in Chatham. During the American Civil War, she returned to the United States where she recruited black soldiers for the Union army. After the war, Mary (now a widow) moved to Washington, D.C. where she taught school for many years, worked for the welfare of emancipated blacks, and studied law at Harvard University (she graduated in 1883 at the age of 60). Mary Shadd died of cancer in 1893; she was 70 years old.

Mary Ann Shadd’s plea for black emigration to Canada West, 1852

The free coloured people have steadily discountenanced any rational scheme of emigration, in the hope that by remaining in the States, a powerful miracle for the overthrow of slavery would be wrought. What are the facts? More territory has been given up to slavery, the Fugitive Law has passed, and a concert of measures, seriously affecting their personal liberty, has been entered into by several of the Free states; so subtle, unseen and effective have been their movements, that, were it not that we remember there is a Great Britain, we would be overwhelmed, powerless, from the force of successive shocks; and the end may not be yet, if we persist in remaining for targets, while they are strengthening themselves in the Northwest, and in the Gulf.
Mary Ann Shadd, A Plea for Emigration; or, Notes of Canada West, in its moral, social, and political aspect (Detroit, 1852), p.44.

Mary Ann Shadd’s Farewell, August 1855

In taking leave of our readers, at this time, we do so for the best interest of the enterprise, and with hope that our absence will be their gain. We want the Freeman to prosper, and shall labor to that end. When it was not, but was said to be needed, we traveled to arouse a sentiment of favor of it, and from then until now, have worked for it, how well others must say, but through difficulties, and opposed obstacles such as we feel confident few, if any, females have had to contend against in the same business, except the sister who shared our labors for awhile; and now after such a familiar acquaintanceship with difficulties, of many shapes, in trying with a few others to keep it alive for one year, as at first promised, we present it in its second year, afresh to the patronage of friends to truth and justice, and its editor, the Rev. Wm. P. Newman, to their kind consideration. To its enemies, we would say, be less captious to him than to us; be more considerate, if you will; it is fit that you should deport your ugliest to a woman. To colored women, we have a word – we have ‘broken the Editorial ice’. Whether wiling or not, for your class in America; so go to Editing, as many of you as are willing, and able, and as soon as you may, if you think you are ready; and to those of you who will not, we say, help us when we visit you, to make brother Newman’s burden lighter, by subscribing to the paper, paying for it, and getting your neighbours to do the same.
Mary Ann Shadd, “Adieu,” Provincial Freeman, August 22nd, 1855

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