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Mary Ann Shadd 'The Rebel'



Shunpiking highlights the life of Mary Ann Shadd - noted African American anti-abolitionist and educationalist


Mary Ann Shadd, 1823-1893, and the Provincial Freeman, 1854-1857, Chatham, Canada West
JUNE 5 marks the 114th anniversary of the death of Mary A Shadd 1823-1893, a woman born in America and known as "the Rebel" who took up some of the main problems of the people at the time and dedicated her life towards finding the solutions, bringing about actual change and making them known as widely as possible.

Shadd was a pioneer, abolitionist, a writer, teacher, school founder and principal, a newspaper publisher and editor, the first woman to tour the country giving lectures, the only woman to hold the post of recruitment officer in the American Civil War and the first woman to enrol at Howard University. She wrote for many newspapers including Fredrick Douglas's North Star and worked as a subscription agent for his New National Era. In the debate of how to respond to the Fugitive Slave Act she led the debate in favour of emigration to Canada - a case made by her in the book A Plea for Emigration. She became a practicing lawyer at the age of 60 and was a leading figure in the woman's suffrage movement in the final twenty years of her life.

Widely recognised

Increasingly in books about her life, biographies on Internet websites, a theatrical dramatisation about her life as well as film; she is beginning to be widely recognised as a leading figure in the emancipation movement and women's suffrage movement of her time. Such a rounded personality is presented according to the interest of those reflecting on her life. On one website she is cited as a reason to be proud of being a lawyer, on another her role in the women's suffrage movement is emphasised and in yet another emphasis is placed on the fact that she was the first black woman to publish and edit a newspaper in North America.

She was born in Wilmington, Delaware, America, in 1823, as a free black person. Her well-off family were active in the abolitionist movement and their home was a stop on the fledgling Underground Railroad. Her parents Abraham and Harriet were in a perilous position: they were free Blacks in a slave state. By sheltering fugitive slaves they took their lives in their hands every day.

Ten-year teaching career

Mary Ann graduated from Price's Boarding School in 1839 at the age of sixteen, soon after which she made the seemingly audacious move back to Wilmington where she proceeded to open a school for black children. There was still no public education available to Blacks in Delaware. It was at least partially through Mary Ann's hard work that by 1844 "Wilmington took steps to insure an education for the free black children of that city." Shadd had, by the age of twenty six, a ten-year teaching career (she had also taught in West Chester and Norristown, Pennsylvannia, Trenton, New Jersey, and New York), as well as published a pamphlet and had a rising public profile to her credit. Hints to the Colored People of the North was reviewed and discussed in Fredrick Douglas's influential North Star of 8 June 1849.

Fugitive Slave Act

An event of enormous importance to Shadd's life, as well as to the lives of all African Americans, was the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 which sought to expedite the process whereby slaveowners could hunt down and legally reclaim fugitive slaves. Canada became an increasingly attractive alternative, especially since Canada allegedly did not seem to discriminate between Blacks and Whites, and did not allow for extradition to the United States.

As a result, people working for abolition of slavery and "racial elevation" began to advocate emigration. Shadd went one step further.

Shadd arrived in Toronto, Canada West (a British colony, now the present-day province of Ontario), in early September, 1850, just in time to attend the North American Convention of eminent emigrationist Black leaders who had gathered at St. Lawrence Hall to discuss emigration, the Fugitive Slave Act and other important issues. Shadd was appointed secretary of the convention with the duty to take notes and transcribe these notes into narrative for newspapers in Canada and America. From this work she earned the reputation of a knowledgeable black leader in Canada and America.

Settling in Windsor, the main point of entry for African Americans to Canada, she soon set about combating the destitution she witnessed by converting an unused military barracks into a non-segregated school. Shadd's deeply-held opinion that segregation (whether in school, church, or community) was a retrograde step for Black emigrants, saw its culmination with the publication of her short book, A Plea for Emigration; Or, Notes of Canada West.

Shadd's newspaper, the Provincial Freeman, was first issued at Windsor on 24 March 1854 as a specimen. Shadd is thought to be the first black woman editor and publisher of a newspaper in North America. The Provincial Freeman was devoted to Anti-Slavery, Temperance and General Literature, and was affiliated with no particular Political Party. Its prospectus stated, "it will open its columns to the views of men of different political opinions, reserving the right, as an independent Journal, of full expression on all questions or projects affecting the people in a political way; and reserving, also, the right to express emphatic condemnation of all projects, having for their object in a great or remote degree, the subversion of the principles of the British Constitution, or of British rule in the Provinces."

This was a period of political ferment in Canada West. Escaped African-American slave Henry Bibb had already founded on 1 January 1851 his Voice of the Fugitive (to 1854), the first Black newspaper (a biweekly) in Canada, in Sandwich and Windsor. He advocated knowledge, self-reliance and political and economic organization as the weapon of fugitive slaves and Black settlements and helped found a school, church, and such antislavery societies as the pan-African American Continental and West India League to unite free Blacks.

Independent publishing at that time, as today, was no bowl of cherries. In July, 1856, Shadd's office was seized for debt and publication was suspended until 25 November, when No.16 was issued. Her last edition was No. 49, 22 August 1857. After issuing the introductory edition, she also took a year away from publishing to embark on a lecture and advertising tour of Canada West and the northern states. She was one of few, if not the only female lecturer in Canada at the time.

National Negro Convention

Shadd attended the National Negro Convention in Philadelphia in 1855, and was the first Black woman admitted as a corresponding member. She made a deep impression on those present including Fredrick Douglas. This was reflected in a special benefit organised in her honour. At this point she seems to have swayed the majority opinion at the Convention in favour of the argument of emigration, including Douglas, who through his Northern Star had led the opposing argument in favour of staying in America and fighting to change the law. Shadd's father, Abraham, became the first Black person elected to public office in Canada in 1858, as a councillor on Raleigh Township Council.

In 1856 she married Thomas F. Carey, of Toronto, and the couple lived in Chatham, Canada West (southwestern Ontario), from where the Provincial Freeman was published, until his death in 1860.

Shadd - along with Thomas Cary and brother Issac Osborne Anderson - were involved in the famous Chatham Convention. John Brown, the militant American abolutionist came to Chatham and held a series of meetings, about founding a free Black settlement in Kansas, but more secretly, about making preparations to invade an armoury in a southern state in the hopes of precipitating a war to end slavery. The eventual raid on Harper's Ferry was successful only in that it brought Civil War closer to reality. Brown was executed and Anderson was one of the few to escape. He made his way back to Chatham, where Shadd edited "A Voice from Harper's Ferry."

Thomas Cary died in 1860, leaving her with their two children, plus three children from his previous marriage. Shadd continued to teach and partially supported her family by writing articles for a New York newspaper, the Weekly Anglo-African. President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect on 1 January 1863. By then, the Civil War was raging and Black men could legally join the army. By 1864, United States Colored Troops were on their way to the South.

Shadd received her commission as a army recruitment officer from the governor of Indiana, and was the only woman to serve in that capacity during the Civil War. At the end of the war, Shadd, like almost two-thirds of all African Americans who had settled in Canada, decided to return to the United States. She had lived in Canada almost fifteen years.

Shadd devoted increased energy to the women's movement. She testified before the House Judiciary Committee examining the issue of women's suffrage. She joined sixty women in 1875 in a protest by attempting to register to vote in an election. She addressed the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1878. She founded the Colored Women's Progressive Association.
Shadd received her teaching certificate in Detroit in 1868, and moved to Washington within a year. At age 46 she was the first woman law student at the newly established Howard University. Though listed among the senior class of 1871-72, she was not allowed to graduate and charged sex discrimination as the basis for that denial. She was barred entry to the Civil Service though highly qualified. She returned to Law School in 1883 and was awarded her LL.B in May 1883, the first woman to do so, and the second black woman to earn a law degree from any North American institution.

She wrote articles for numerous newspapers, toured the country, and was a subscription agent for Frederick Douglas' New National Era, and worked as a principal of a school for Black children. Women rights and suffrage had been covered by both the Freeman and the Voice, but in the last twenty years of her life, Shadd devoted increased energy to the women's movement. She testified before the House Judiciary Committee examining the issue of women's suffrage. She joined sixty women in 1875 in a protest by attempting to register to vote in an election. She addressed the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1878. She founded the Colored Women's Progressive Association. In the final year of her life, Shadd returned to journalism and lecturing (often in the south) to support herself. She died on June 5, 1893, in Washington of stomach cancer. The Washington house in which Shadd lived was declared an American National Landmark in 1976.

With files from Progress, Issue Number 18

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