Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893)
Do you know the name Mary Ann Shadd Cary, lawyer, educator, suffragist? Chances are you don’t, but you should. She was believed to be the first black woman in North America to edit and publish a newspaper; one of the first female Africa American lawyers in the United States; the first black woman to actively recruit troops for the Union Army; and one of 600 citizens who in January, 1874,signed a petition that suffragists presented to the House Judiciary Committee, claiming a woman’s legal right to vote, and later testifying before that Committee. It is quite a list accomplishments for a woman, especially a black woman, given the obstacles she had to overcome because she was both black and a woman.
Born Mary Ann Shadd in Wilmington, Delaware, on October 9, 1823, she was the oldest of the 13 children of free African American parents Abraham D. Shadd and Harriet Burton Parnell. In 1833 her parents moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania. There she was able to attend a Quaker boarding school until she was 16.
When she left the school, she began teaching in New Jersey. Later she taught in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York City. Shadd settled in Windsor, Canada, in 1850, where she taught at an integrated school. It was there that she wrote the pamphlet “Notes of Canada West” in which she urged black Americans to emigrate north as she had. In 1853 she began publishing a weekly newspaper , “ The Provincial Freeman”, at a time when there was a growing community of expatriate African Americans in Windsor. The newspaper provided a forum for Shadd’s views on integrated schools and equal rights for both black men and women, and celebrated the accomplishments of black women in particular.
She married Thomas Cary, an owner of barbershops in Toronto, in 1856. He commuted between Toronto and Chatham, where she was publishing the newspaper. They weathered a number of struggles during their short marriage. Short because Thomas Cary died in November, 1860, while Shadd Cary was expecting their second child. She became a single mother of two young children with financial struggles. She had already been forced to stop printing the newspaper in 1859 because she could not financially keep it going. Her problems continued until her friend Martin Delaney offered her a job recruiting black men to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War, a first for a black woman.
After the war ended Shadd Cary moved to Washington, D.C., where she returned to teaching in the public schools. It was there she embarked on her second career. In September, 1869, she became the first black woman law student at Howard University. As the first African American woman to get a law degree she joined the ranks of the growing women’s voting rights movement alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association and stayed close to the organization even though its leaders adopted the stance that “educated white women were better suited to vote than illiterate black males”. It was not uncommon for black women to stay associated with organizations that were hostile to African American interests because it enabled them to raise issues that would otherwise be ignored. It was during this period that she founded the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association but it did not last long.
Until her death in Washington, D.C., in June, 1893, Shadd Cary continued to use her law degree to help people all around her with legal issues while never wavering from her convictions on equal rights and particularly women’s rights. Frederick Douglas once wrote of her, “We do not know of her equal among the colored ladies of the United States.” Her accomplishments were indeed impressive.