Mary Ann Shadd: Born Abolitionist by SS


Mary Ann Shadd : Born Abolitionist


Mary Ann Shadd was an American-born abolitionist, editor, author and educator.  She persuasively promoted emigration to Canada as a means of refuge for not only escaped slaves but also for those who were free yet ever fearing for their liberty in America.  She was the first sole black female newspaper editor in North America and later obtained her law degree in 1883, becoming one of the first black women to do so.[1]  Shadd is most notably known for her integration efforts during the abolitionist movement, although she is almost as equally known for her beauty.  Shadd radically differed in her views from those of other abolitionists, creating further tension in what was already a hostile environment.  Had her opponents accepted her opinion without hostility, they could have possibly furthered the movement by focusing their combined energies on the slavery issue.

In 1823, Shadd was born into a family of free African-Americans in Wilmington, Delaware, which was a slave state at the time.  Her father was an abolitionist who dedicated his home to the movement by turning it into a station for escaped slaves travelling the Underground Railroad.[2]  Her father was almost certainly her greatest inspiration in her future endeavours as an abolitionist.  He believed education was the key to achieving racial equality.  The Shadd Family moved to Pennsylvania during Mary Ann’s adolescence in order for the children to obtain a better education. Shadd became a school teacher at the age of 16 and travelled back to Delaware and then throughout New Jersey and New York, teaching at ‘all-black schools’ for ten years.[3]  She would then emigrate to Canada. 

Canada symbolized true freedom for many ‘free blacks’ who were concerned for their liberty, especially after the passing of the Fugitives Slaves Act.  Under this law, self-emancipated slaves could be easily returned to the South.[4]  However, once across the border to Canada, they could not be forcibly returned and, as Bearden and Butler explained, “a black – man, woman or child – was miraculously a free human being with all the rights of any other immigrant”.[5]  Canada additionally offered schools, albeit segregated ones, as well as the ability to vote.  For these reasons, Shadd pleaded with her fellow black Americans to emigrate.

Shadd emigrated north to Canada in 1850, amidst a mass exodus. Her reasons were essentially three-fold.  Firstly, like most black people in America at that time, she feared for her liberty even though she was a free woman.  Secondly, she had previously been to Canada to scout the north land so as to assess its potential as a refuge for others needing an escape.  In 1842, she wrote Notes of Canada West in an attempt to persuade others to emigrate.[6]  Of course, she followed her own advice some years later.  Thirdly, she went as a call to duty.  She had attended the Convention of Colored Freeman in Toronto in 1851 where she met Henry and Mary Bibb, who were already established leaders of the abolitionist movement in Canada.[7]  They requested that she relocate to Windsor where the need for education of black children was the greatest.

The Bibbs believed in separate racial spheres.[8]  In direct contrast, Shadd believed it was necessary for blacks to integrate into the white sphere and make oneself as independent as possible.  Shadd is well-known for her determination and radical thinking on this issue.  Her belief was that the only way for her people to gain equal footing with the whites was to be incorporated into their society.  She was therefore constantly in opposition to the Bibbs.  Henry Bibb was a former slave and the editor of the Voice of the Fugitive.  His wife Mary was a schoolteacher who was critical in influencing Shadd to settle down in Windsor.  Contrary to the Bibbs’ liking, Shadd was very vocal about refusing the caste system in a free country.  She fought to open her own school, which was one of the first non-segregated schools in Canada. 

            The feud between Shadd and the Bibbs did have one positive outcome: it actually contributed to Shadd organizing her own newspaper, thus becoming the first black woman in North America to do so.  Henry Bibb habitually slandered Shadd in his newspaper, comparing her to their shared enemy.  She desired the sort of platform that Bibb had in order to defend herself against his allegations and further promote her views.  This desire fuelled her to “[publish] the first edition of the Provincial Freeman” in 1853, changing history.[9] 

            Mary Ann Shadd was born into her role as abolitionist, continuing a legacy, already well established by her father.  She showed courage during a time of extremely high tensions in society.  She demonstrated great self-respect while having her character attacked.  It is alarming that although the Bibbs and Shadd were striving for the same goal, they were unable to unite their forces for the better cause due to differences in their views.  As units are always stronger than individuals, it is possible that their goals may have been reached in a more expedient manner had they worked in harmony.  Instead, their actions served only to remove the focus from the real issue of slavery and turn it towards personal feuds.


[1]Jason H. Silverman, Mary Ann Shadd and the Search for Equality. A Nation of Immigrants: Women, Workers, and Communities in Canadian History, 1840s-1960s. (Ed. Draper, Iacovetta, Ventresca, 2007.) 112.

[2] Bearden, Butler.  Shadd. The Life and Times of Mary Shadd Cary, (NC Press Ltd.  Toronto, 1977). 11. 

[3]Glass, Kathy L. Courting Communities: Black Female Nationalism and ‘Syncre-Nationalism’ in the Nineteenth-Century North, (Routledge, New York, 2006.) 58.


[4]Silverman, Mary Ann Shadd. 102.

[5]Bearden, Butler, Shadd. 22.

[6]Mary A. Shadd. “A plea for emigration: or, notes of Canada West, in its moral, social, and political aspect…for the information of colored emigrants.” In Early Voices: Portraits of Canada by Women Writers, 1639-1914. Edited by Downie, Errington, Robertson. Dundurn Press, 2010. 137.

[7] Adrienne Shadd. Mary Ann Shadd Cary : Pioneer Newspaper Woman, Antislavery Activist, and Leader of the Emigration Movement to Canad. January 2, 2008.

[8]Mary Ann Shadd. November 6, 2013.

[9] Silverman, Mary Ann Shadd. 106.



  1. Firstly, I was very happy to read about Mary Ann Shadd because her story can reveal not only success for women at the time, but for women of colour as well. It is interesting to read Shadd’s beliefs about meshing the two races together in order to have social order. Her view clearly contrasted from majority of society during her lifetime; she had a very futuristic view about prejudice. For example, in psychology there is a discussion about different ethnic groups interacting with one another in order to reduce prejudice. This is exactly what Shadd seems to be alluding to through her values and actions.
    However, I think an issue that could have been expanded upon in this essay is gender discrimination against women of colour at the time. For example, were they treated even worse than white women? Were they all expected to carry out the same ‘feminine’ jobs as women were? Did Mary Ann Shadd’s actions stand out because she was a woman of colour or because she was a woman in general?
    Lastly, I agree with the author; Shadd really did show courage during her lifetime. I think that she is a good example for women even today to follow. She stood for what she believed in despite the fact that it contrasted with the views of her peers as well as with societal norms during the time period.

  2. Kelly P · · Reply

    . After reading about Mary Ann Shadd’s journey, I felt a sense of pride that Canada represented freedom for many ‘free blacks. ’I was glad to read that Canada made accessible education and the right for voting available for the blacks. I think Canada still makes an effort to make a free, equal country for everyone.

    Also, I believe AL has a valid point. It makes me wonder what hardships due to discrimination Mary Ann Shadd faced alongside other non-white women. To answer AL’s question: “Did Mary Ann Shadd’s actions stand out because she was a woman of colour or because she was a woman in general?” I think Shadd’s story mostly stood out because she is a woman of colour. From my perspective, at that time it made her twice as strong that she was able to fight for her rights and what she believed in when she was up against the oppression of being a black person and a woman. I think Shadd became a leader because of her father who was a man of strength and direction as well. Mary Ann Shadd story is certainly an inspiration to all women. It is encouraging that one woman can make a difference in society.

  3. shelbylee · · Reply

    The story of Mary Ann Shadd is empowering to women as she fought for what she thought was right, and in the 1800’s this was difficult for any women do to, but especially difficult considering she was of colour. I was also pleased to read about how Canada prohibited blacks from being sent back down south once they had crossed the Canadian borders, which was not prohibited in United States because of the Fugitive Slave Act.

    I like how in the essay the author writes: “Shadd believed it was necessary for blacks to integrate into the white sphere and make oneself as independent as possible” and then it continues on to prove what she did about that, instead of just stating what Shadd believed. She opened one of the first non-segregated schools, proving that she had an idea and she put it into action, and her determinism and courage is also demonstrated.

    Her role as abolitionist during the 18th century was impressive, as it would have been difficult for a African-American women to take on a leadership role at this time due to the social norms that were in place. Her contributions to anti-slavery and non-segregated public spaces were aware through the examples provided in the essay.

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