Mary Ann Shadd: First Black Woman Lawyer, Publisher and Voter


In October 1823, Mary Ann Shadd was born, the first of 13 children of free Negro, to Harriet and Abraham Shadd, prominent freeborn abolitionists in Wilmington, Delaware. At the age of ten, the Shadd’s moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania where Mary attended a Quaker School for the next six years. She opened a school in West Chester for Black children in 1840.
She was educated by Quakers and taught Black children across the northeastern United States (New York; Morristown, N.J.) before crossing the border into Canada in 1851 as part of the growing Black emigrationist movement. She set up a school for the children of fugitive slaves. She founded a racially integrated school. With the support of the American Missionary Association. While fighting anti-slavery agents, she simultaneously criticized Black Southern ministers and other Blacks who did not teach intellectual growth and self reliance to other Blacks. In 1852 she wrote “Notes on Canada West” which persuaded American Blacks to come to Canada. She wrote a pamphlet Notes on Canada West (1852). In March 1853 she began publishing the Provincial Freeman, which became the main voice for Canada’s Black communities and a forum for debate over abolitionist strategies.
Mary-Cary.gif Her father had been a key figure in the Underground Railroad and a subscription agent for William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator. Abraham Shadd too moved to Canada, and subsequently became one of Canada’s first Black elected officials. In 1855, Mary’s sister Emaline Shadd received top honors at Toronto’s Normal School. In 1856, Mary Shadd married a Toronto barber, Thomas F. Cary, who was involved with the paper. In late 1857, she ceased publishing the Newspaper. In 1858, John Brown held a secret “convention” at the home of Mary’s brother Isaac, a meeting that elevated Mary’s concern for the anti-slavery cause. In 1861, she published Voice from Harper’s Ferry, a tribute to Brown’s unsuccessful raid. After the outbreak of the Civil War Mary Ann Shadd Cary left Canada and was appointed a Recruiting Officer for Blacks for the Union Army.
After the War she taught in schools for Negroes in Wilmington Delaware. Widowed sometime during the war, Mary later moved to Washington, DC, with her daughter Elizabeth where she taught for 15 years both at public schools and Howard University. 1889, Mary Ann Shadd Cary became the first woman to enter Howard University’s law school. She was in 1883 the first Negro woman to obtain a law degree from Howard University and among the first women in the United States to do so. She wrote for National Era and The People’s Advocate and joined the National Woman’s Suffrage Association. Cary then worked alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton for women’s suffrage, testifying before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives and becoming the first Negro woman to cast a vote in a national election. As an educator, an abolitionist, an editor, an attorney and a feminist, she dedicated her life to improving the quality of life for everyone — black and white, male and female. She died in 1893.
The Mary Ann Shadd Cary House is located at 1421 W Street, NW in Washington, DC.