[Originally published on FB February 3, 2021.]
Mary Ann Shadd Cary, an educator, publisher, lawyer and abolitionist, is our woman philosopher of February. In this post, I share some background details about her life. In future posts, I’ll highlight some of her ideas.
Mary Ann Shadd was born on October 9th, 1823, to free parents in Wilmington, Delaware, which was a slave state at that time. Her parents belonged to the network known as “The Underground Railroad”.
In 1833, Mary Shadd moved with her family to Pennsylvania, which was a free state. There, she went to school, and was educated by Quakers. She became a teacher and taught throughout the northeastern United States. In 1850, the second Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the Congress, making the work of any abolitionist harder and more dangerous. The Act allowed any slave owner to re-enslave an escaped slave whenever they were - even in a state that had abolished slavery It also allowed the punishment of anyone who were helping slaves to escape.
In 1851, Mary Shadd moved to Ontario, Canada, and in that same year she met Thomas J. Cary, whom she married and with whom she had two children. She attended the first North American Convention of Coloured Freemen at St. Lawrence Hall, where she met abolitionists Henry and Mary Bibb, publishers of the anti-slavery newspaper Voice of the Fugitive. She founded an affordable school for both white and black students, where she could educate and care for those coming from the US. The school was financially assisted by the American Missionary Association, and we have some letters between Mary Shadd and George Whipple, secretary of the Association (November 27th, 1851), in which Mary Shadd corrects his impression that the school was promoting segregation.
In 1852, she published A Plea for Emigration (or Notes of Canada West), which aimed to promote Canada as a destination. She also engaged in a public debate with Henry and Mary Bibb, who defended schools for black students only. Again, Mary Shadd was against segregation. Due to the repercussions of the debate, the American Missionary Association withdrew its funding, leaving Mary Shadd without financial support. So, on March 24th, 1853, Mary Shadd began publishing The Provincial Freeman, her own newspaper. She is considered the first Black woman in North America to publish a newspaper, and one of the first female journalists in Canada. It is said that her newspaper motto was “Self-reliance is the true road to independence”.
The Provincial Freeman became a space to promote anti-slavery ideas and women’s rights. We still have access to many of its editorials. To name a few: Anti-Slavery Relations (March 25th, 1854), where Mary Shadd argues for a unity in the anti-slavery movement as a whole; The Presidential Election in the United States (December 6th, 1856), in which she foresaw the beginning of the American Civil War from the victory of candidate James Buchanan. The newspaper closed due to financial pressure in 1860.
In 1861, Mary Shadd left Canada to help recruit soldiers for the Union Army in the American Civil War. Years after the war, she enrolled in the first class of Howard University Law School, in Washington, DC, and in 1883, she graduated, becoming the first Black woman to complete a law degree in North America. Also, she wrote for the local newspaper The New National Era, gave public speeches, founded the Colored Women’s Progressive Association (we have the minutes of the first meeting and the statement of purpose), and became a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association. She advocated for the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments at a House Judiciary Committee Hearing. Despite defending those amendments, Mary Shadd criticized the definition of citizen, for it did not give the right to vote to women. Her speech to the House Judiciary Committee was made in January, 1872.
She died on June 5th, 1893 of a stomach cancer. In 1994, the Government of Canada recognized Mary Shadd Cary’s leadership, naming her a Person of National Historic Significance.
(Picture retrieved from: https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/.../Collec.../Pages/record.aspx...)
Olivia Branscum is a PhD student in Philosophy at Columbia University. She is co-producer of the New Voices podcast