Mary Ann Shadd was born on October 9, 1823, in Wilmington, Delaware. Her father, Abraham, was a shoemaker. Her mother, Harriet, cared for the family home and raised their thirteen children. Mary Ann was their oldest child.
The Shadd family seemed like a typical middle-class, free Black family to outsiders, but they had a secret. Abraham and Harriet were part of the Underground Railroad, a network of activists who helped enslaved people escape from their enslavers. The work was dangerous. If they were discovered, they might be forced to pay huge fines or attacked by angry enslavers. But Abraham and Harriet believed helping their fellow Black Americans reach freedom was worth the risk. From their example, Mary Ann learned that if you wanted to change the world you needed to take action.
When Mary Ann was 10 years old, the state of Delaware passed a law that banned Black children from attending school. In response, Abraham and Harriet moved their family to West Chester, Pennsylvania, where they continued their work with the Underground Railroad. Pennsylvania was a “free state,” meaning slavery was illegal there. But even so, Mary Ann and her family faced continuous segregation and discrimination that made daily life challenging. This only made them more dedicated to their cause of uplifting all Black Americans. Abraham was elected president of the National Convention for the Improvement of Free People of Colour in Philadelphia. After graduating school, Mary Ann opened a school for Black children. She believed that a good education was the best way for a person to advance in America.
Mary Ann closely followed the antislavery movement in the U.S. She became frustrated that leaders talked about the need to end slavery, but nothing ever seemed to change. In 1848, Frederick Douglass asked readers of his abolitionist newspaper The North Star to write in and share what should be done to help improve the lives of all Black Americans. In her response, Mary Ann wrote, “We should do more and talk less.” Her opinion was blunt and forward-thinking, both qualities that would become hallmarks of her activist career. When Frederick Douglass published her letter, it was the first time Mary Ann was featured in print.
Mary Ann’s life changed dramatically in 1850 when Congress passed a new Fugitive Slave Law. The law made it illegal for any person to help an enslaved person escape their enslaver, regardless of where they lived. It also made it easier than ever for slave catchers to capture free Black Americans and sell them into slavery. Mary Ann decided she was no longer safe living in the United States. She moved to Ontario, Canada, with her brother Isaac. Her parents followed with the rest of the family not long after. But no member of the Shadd family gave up their activism. Mary Ann became convinced that emigrating from the U.S. was the easiest way for Black people to find a better life. She published essays encouraging other Black Americans to join her in Canada, and she supported new arrivals in her community.
Emigration was a controversial topic among Black activists. Some Black Americans felt like emigrating was giving up and letting white Americans get away with their racism. They thought Black people should stay and fight for their rights. Mary Ann thought Black people could do both. In 1853, Mary Ann launched The Provincial Freeman, Canada’s first antislavery newspaper. She was the first Black woman newspaper editor in North America. She personally smuggled copies of the paper across the border into the U.S. so that her message could reach as many Americans as possible. But she continued to live in Ontario for her personal safety.
Mary Ann was not just a Black person. She was also a woman, and as a woman, she faced a whole second set of prejudices and discrimination. For example, Mary Ann knew that people would not take her newspaper seriously if it was published under her name. She convinced two men, one Black and one white, to appear on the masthead for the first year of publication. Once the newspaper was established, Mary Ann put her own name on the masthead. But as she feared, readers responded negatively. She was forced to resign in 1855.
For the next few years, Mary Ann toured the U.S. speaking in support of abolition. She was one of the most radical speakers of the cause. She did not want the U.S. to merely end slavery. She wanted the U.S. to support full legal, economic, and social equality for Black Americans. In 1855, Mary Ann applied to be the first woman to speak at a national convention of Black civil rights. She was a controversial candidate, not just because of her sex but because she wanted to speak in support of emigration. Her application was narrowly approved. The official conference record makes almost no mention of her appearance, probably because she was a woman. But Frederick Douglass reported that her speech was so powerful that the conference attendees asked her to speak an extra 10 minutes.
In 1856, Mary Ann married Thomas Cary, a Canadian barber. She gave birth to two children, a daughter named Sarah and a son named Linton. Unfortunately, Thomas died in 1860. After his death, Mary Ann decided to move her family back to the U.S. This was a bold choice. The Shadd family had found great success and stability in Canada. Her father was the first Black man elected to Canadian political office. Choosing to move back to the U.S. meant Mary Ann would have to support and raise her two young children by herself, and women did not have many legal and economic rights in the U.S. to protect her. But for Mary Ann, the outbreak of the Civil War meant there was finally a real chance to end slavery. This was more important to her than any other consideration.
Mary Ann smuggled copies of her abolitionist paper across the border into the U.S. so that her message could reach as many Americans as possible.
During the war, Mary Ann ran a recruiting office for Black soldiers in Indiana. When the war ended, she returned to teaching to support her family while also helping recently emancipated people. After 15 years of teaching, Mary Ann launched a new phase of her career. In 1870, she graduated from Howard University with a degree in law and dedicated herself to the promotion of women’s rights in the U.S. At the time, the women’s rights movement was divided over the question of whether to support racial equality. Mary Ann became a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association, but she was also a full supporter of the Fifteenth Amendment. In 1874, she testified before the House Judiciary Committee, explaining that as a taxpayer, she was entitled to the right to vote. This was the same argument that had launched the American Revolution 98 years earlier. In 1880, she founded the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise, creating a space where Black women’s voices could take center stage.
Mary Ann died of stomach cancer in 1893, and the memory of her lifetime of activism faded quickly from public consciousness. But her life story demonstrates the very real impact Black women had on the most pressing social issues of the 1800s.
- Fifteenth Amendment: Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that granted the right to vote to Black men but not women.
- abolition: The movement to end the practice of slavery in the U.S.
- Civil War: U.S. war from 1861 to 1865 in which the Northern and Southern states fought over the question of whether the practice of slavery should continue in the U.S.
- Congress: The part of the federal government that makes laws.
- emigration: To move away from a place. In the 1800s, emigration was the name for the political movement that believed Black people should move out of the United States to escape racial injustice.
- masthead: Top of the first page of a newspaper, where the title and editor of the paper are displayed.
- How did Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s race and gender shape her experiences?
- Why was Mary Ann Shadd Cary a controversial figure in the abolitionist movement?
- What does this life story reveal about the role of Black women in activist movements in the 1800s?
- Include this life story in any lesson about the abolitionist movement and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.
- Mary Ann Shadd Cary was one of the first Americans to call for racial integration and absolute equality. To learn more about how these ideals developed after the Civil War, see Our Composite Nation: Frederick Douglass’ America.