She was a remarkable woman — long before her time.
Born in Delaware as the first of 13 children, Mary Ann Shadd Cary was a descendant of a Hessian soldier who had fought in America for the British during the French and Indian War and married an African-American woman who had cared for him after he was wounded. Her father, Abraham Shadd, was known as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, escorting slaves from the South to freedom in the North.
As racial tensions increased in the run up to the Civil War, state officials made it illegal to educate black children in Delaware, so the Shadd family moved to Pennsylvania, where Mary attended a Quaker school. And when the federal government enacted the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which rewarded bounty hunters for returning free blacks and escaped slaves to bondage, Mary and her brother Isaac moved to Windsor, Ontario, just across the border from Detroit.
There Mary began a newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, making her the first African-American newspaper publisher in North America, an aggressive voice against white American racial attitudes. She also married a Toronto barber, Thomas Cary, who with Isaac helped run the newspaper.
During the Civil War, she helped recruit volunteer soldiers to fight for the Union, and afterward she returned to the United States teach school children in Wilmington, Delaware and Washington D.C. In 1883, at the age of 60, she graduated from Howard University Law School — though not admitted to the bar.
But the thing I love most about Mary Ann Shadd Cary is that in 1871, one year before Susan B. Anthony made headlines — and drew a court case — for attempting to vote, Shadd Cary led a delegation of black women making a similar effort. She argued that the Fourteenth Amendment, which declared, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States are citizens of the United States,” was all she needed, as she explained in pioneering testimony before the House Judiciary Committee — the first woman to do so. The registrar denied the effort. It was not until 1920 that the U.S. Constitution recognized the right of all women to vote, not until 1965 until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act assuring that right to African-Americans.
If the authorities denied her claim, Shadd Cary’s courage has been remembered by history. Her former home in Washington DC is a national historic landmark and Canada named her a person of national historic significance.
I learned about Mary Ann Shadd Cary when I was researching my book, Gilded Suffragists: The New York Socialites Who Fought for Women’s Right to Vote. Shadd Cary was neither wealthy nor a socialite, but she was a stalwart defender of black and female rights. As one historian wrote, she was “an attractive, witty, and sharp-tongued speaker, praised for her intellect and original ideas. In her world, there were few choices either for women or for African Americans. She challenged restrictions by whatever means she could.” And as we approach Black History Month, here’s to you Mary Ann Shadd Cary.