Born in Wilmington in 1823 to free black parents, Mary Ann Shadd dedicated her life to the abolition of slavery. She became an educator and journalist in pursuit of freedom.
Shadd inherited her zeal from her father, who hid runaway slaves in their home and worked for William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper The Liberator. He was an active participant in the Underground Railroad.
Since education of blacks by the slave state of Delaware was illegal, Shadd’s parents sent her at age 10 to Price’s Boarding School, founded by Quakers in West Chester, Pa. She attended the school for six years before returning to Delaware to help teach black children.
According to Encyclopedia.com, when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, that led to the emigration of many blacks to Canada — including the Shadd family, to avoid potential abduction and enslavement. The act permitted capture and return of escaped slaves, yet the enforcers did not always discriminate between slaves and freemen.
While living in Windsor, Ontario, Shadd published a pamphlet titled “Notes on Canada West: A Plea for Emigration” that described the opportunities and benefits for blacks living in Canada. It received wide circulation within the United States. By the end of the 1850’s, more than 15,000 blacks had migrated across the northern border.
Mary Ann Shadd founded and edited the weekly Provincial Freeman, an antislavery newspaper. She purportedly became the first black female newspaper editor in North America.
The activist lectured in Canada and the United States to increase circulation of her journal and organize assistance for runaway slaves. She became known among her friends and family as “The Rebel,” because of her willingness to pursue these objectives at considerable personal risk.
Shadd broke new ground when she attended a convention of African-Americans in Philadelphia in 1855. The previously all-male hierarchy admitted her as a corresponding member in recognition for her work as an abolitionist lecturer.
In 1856, Shadd married Thomas Cary, and they had a daughter named Sally. He passed away in 1860, leaving her to rely on family members to help raise her child, so that she could pursue her many causes.
The militant abolitionist John Brown visited her brother Isaac in Canada in 1858. A year later, Brown and his accomplices conducted a raid on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry with an uprising of slaves as the intended objective.
After John Brown’s trial and execution, Mary Ann Shadd Cary edited the memoirs of the sole survivor of the raid. She compiled “A Voice from Harper’s Ferry” from the notes of Osborne P. Anderson, a black man who later served in the U.S. Colored Troops when war erupted between the states in 1861.
During the Civil War, Shadd Cary served as a recruiting officer to enlist black volunteers. Years later, she attended historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and earned a law degree at age 60.
Shadd Cary was dedicated to the fight for women’s rights. Continuing to overcome impediments, in 1887 she was one of only two black women invited to attend the Annual Congress of the Association for the Advancement of Women in New York.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary died in 1893 at age 69 in Washington, D.C. This “attractive, witty and sharp-tongued” black woman lived life to the fullest in a single-minded attempt to improve conditions and opportunities for blacks in this country.
Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” a History Book Club selection available at Bethany Beach Books. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.