By Tamara Shiloh
The eldest of 13 children, Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823–1893) was born in Wilmington, Del. to a free African American family. She was raised in a household dedicated to the abolition of slavery. The Shadd home often served as a shelter for fugitive slaves. Young Mary’s father worked for the abolitionist newspaper Liberator, run by William Lloyd Garrison.
Even as free blacks living in the north, the Shadds faced deep-seated discrimination and segregation.
Schools for Delaware blacks during that time were nonexistent. The Shadds, however, wanted their children educated. They relocated to Pennsylvania (1833) where young Mary attended a Quaker boarding school. For the next 12 years, she taught black children in Delaware, New York and Pennsylvania. Her passion though, was to follow in her father’s footsteps.
After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law (1850), Cary moved to Canada with one of her brothers. The act required that slaves be returned to their owners, even if they were in a free state. The entire Shadd family soon followed. It was there that she found Canada’s first antislavery newspaper, The Provincial Freemen. It was a weekly publication targeting blacks, especially those who’d escaped slavery.
Cary would pen many of the stories, often returning to the states to gather information. Through this, she became the first female African-American newspaper editor in North America. Her work as a journalist was not spared criticism, as many disagreed with her views.
A critic from a rival paper wrote: “Miss Shadd [Cary] has said and written many things which we think will add nothing to her credit as a lady.”
Cary however, was less concerned with being a lady than she was with having a voice. “She got a lot of criticism from black male leaders, even from some black women, because she was so visible and she was so vocal,” Jane Rhodes, professor and department head of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago said, noting that Cary defied traditional attitudes presuming a woman’s place was in the home. “And she said, ‘I’m opening the door for you, for black women, and I’m proud that I’m doing that and I’m trying to create a space for you to have a voice.’”
Cary’s drive to support the rights and freedoms of blacks never ceased, especially when it involved education. This spurred her established a school—one that was open to children of all races.
The Civil War erupted in 1861. Cary then returned to the states to assist in the war effort. While working as a recruiting officer for the Union Army, she encouraged blacks to join the fight against the Confederacy and against slavery. Postwar, she attended Howard University, becoming the second African-American woman in the United States to earn a law degree (1883).
“It was fearless, and it was fierce,” Rhodes said of the Cary’s voice. “She really was unafraid and she carried that throughout her life.”
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