Mary Ann Shadd Cary made her mark as the first Black woman publisher in North America, and as the first woman publisher in Canada. Mrs. Cary was also an abolitionist, teacher, activist, and lawyer in her lifetime, and established a racially integrated school just across the border from Detroit.
Cary was born Mary Ann Shadd on October 9, 1823 in Wilmington, Delaware. She was the eldest of 13 children to her free-born parents. Shadd’s father, A.D. Shadd, was a well-known abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad who became Canada’s first Black elected official in 1858.
The family moved from Delaware to Pennsylvania once it became illegal to educate Black people in their former state. Cary ultimately returned to the town of West Chester where she established a school for Black children and did the same in New York as well.
When the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was enacted, the Shadd family went north to Canada. Cary’s racially-integrated school was established in Windsor, Ontario shortly after her arrival.
In 1853, Cary’s anti-slavery newspaper, The Provincial Freemen, was established. The paper sought to inform African-Americans of Canada’s opportunities, especially those seeking to escape or had recently arrived to the nation. Her brother Issac Shadd ran the newspaper, between hosting the meetings for the Harper’s Ferry Raid at his home, according to some accounts.
The newspaper publisher married Thomas F. Cary in 1856. The pair had two children but her husband died just a few years after their union. In 1863, the height of the Civil War, Cary returned to the United States and worked as a recruiting officer for the Union Army in Indiana. Much of Cary’s motivation to do so was to stamp out the practice of slavery.
In 1883, just 10 years before her death, Cary became just the second Black woman to earn a law degree in the United States, after graduating from Howard University.
Cary’s home is a historical landmark in Washington, D.C., which is her final resting place.