Shadd Cary’s life (1823–1893) is awash with firsts: The eldest of 13 children, she went on to become the first female newspaperwoman in North America and the first female editor in Canada for her anti-slavery publication, the Provincial Freeman.
Mary Ann Shadd was born free in the slave state of Delaware in 1823. Her parents, Abraham and Harriet Parnell Shadd, were abolitionists, and their home was a station on the Underground Railroad. When Shadd was a young girl, the family moved to Westchester, Pennsylvania,
In 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act to aid slave owners in recapturing their escaped human “property.” This law stipulated that any white person could arrest and detain anyone of African descent who was suspected of being a runaway slave. Unless the so-called slave possessed irrefutable proof of freedom, there was little recourse in the courts. This odious legislation affected not only the recently escaped slaves, but also those who had escaped long ago and those who had been living in freedom for years. Even those born free were at risk of being captured and dragged into bondage. As a result, thousands of Blacks living in freedom in northern states fled to Canada. The Shadds were one of these families.
In border-city Windsor in 1851, she arrived to teach school, but vehemently opposed to racial separation, refused to push a segregated education. The firsts continued later in her life, too — she was the only female recruiting officer in the American Civil War. Shadd Cary also became the first woman to attend Howard University’s law school, launching — and winning — a lawsuit against the school for sexual discrimination. Obtaining her law degree in 1881, she left teaching to practice law.
After a lifetime of achievements and firsts, Shadd Cary died on June 5, 1893. Perhaps her greatest contribution was the role she carved out for herself as a Black woman in the public sphere, whether as a teacher and community activist, writer, newspaper editor, public speaker, recruiting agent for the Union Army or lawyer. By pushing the boundaries and limitations normally ascribed to her race and sex, she blazed a trail not only for Black people but also for generations of women.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary has been designated a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada, one of her many posthumous honours.