Mary Ann Shadd Cary at 200

Abolitionist and publisher used her newspaper to fight for equality.
Written by Sean Smith Posted August 31, 2023

“I heard you were in Buffalo,” writes Mary Ann Shadd Cary in a letter to her brother, Isaac, dated 16 September 1851. “I have not time to say much to you for I leave here for Sandwich, Canada West today.”

Shadd Cary was writing from Toronto where she had attended the North American Convention of Colored Freemen, held at St. Lawrence Hall from September 11–13, 1851. The letter, housed at the Archives of Ontario, marks the beginning of a period of about ten years that she lived in Canada.

Shadd Cary was an educator, author, feminist, abolitionist, journalist and a lawyer. She was born on October 9, 1823, in Wilmington, Delaware, making this the 200th anniversary of her birth. She was a key figure in the abolitionist movement in Canada and the United States and founded The Provincial Freeman from her Canadian home thereby becoming the first female publisher of any race in Canada. In her words, she had “broken the editorial ice.”

“What I admire about Mary Ann Shadd Cary is her unflinching boldness to speak the truth, a commitment to the communities she belonged to and to the betterment of all,” said Nana aba Duncan, professor and Carty Chair of Journalism, Diversity and Inclusion Studies at Carleton University. “Mary Ann’s paper in the 1850s is a reminder that our history has long included the fearlessness of Black journalists using media to advocate for equality.” 

Shadd Cary used her newspaper to promote the abolition of slavery, and featured articles from prominent African American abolitionists such as William Still, the “Father of the Underground Railroad.” In fact, she considered herself equal to the men leading the abolitionist movement and openly debated with them about how to build and support a Black community in Canada. She was a key advocate for Black migration to Canada. She used the Provincial Freeman to promote her arguments about abolition, women’s suffrage, and to encourage to encourage Black Americans to emigrate here. 

“As I argue in my forthcoming edited collection, Mary Ann Shadd Cary in the Here and Now (Penn Press 2024),” said Kristin Moriah, Assistant Professor of African American Literature at Queen's University, “Mary Ann Shadd Cary provides a model for thinking about Black feminist intellectual life and Black life across the Black diaspora that has rarely been paralleled. Her impact on Black feminist intellectual history has been profound and continues to reverberate. Shadd Cary was a polarizing yet notable trailblazing nineteenth century Black feminist with radical politics who occupied multiple subject positions during her lifetime. She was adventurous, unpredictable, and prolific.”

Shadd Cary has already been designated as a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada (1994) and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in the United States in 1998, but there has been a groundswell of interest in her over the last couple of years. In recognition of her legacy, a statue of her was unveiled last year at the University of Windsor, joining existing statues or plaques honouring her in Chatham and Toronto. The National Newspaper Awards established the Mary Ann Shadd Cary Award for Columns in December 2021 and presented the inaugural award in May 2022. Records created by her that are held by the Archives of Ontario and Library and Archives Canada have been added to CCUNESCO’s Canada Memory of the World Register.

Herstories matter

If you believe that stories of women's history should be more widely known, help us do more.


Your donation of $10, $25, or whatever amount you like, will allow Canada’s History to share women’s stories with readers of all ages, ensuring the widest possible audience can access these stories for free.


Any amount helps, or better yet, start a monthly donation today. Your support makes all the difference. Thank you!

Related to Women