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Mary Ann Shadd Cary: Lawyer, Educator, Suffragist

Washington, D.C. is a nexus for high achievers, accomplished folks, and never-satisfied attention-seekers. In the wash of history, some of Washington’s brighter lights get lost—especially those whose history gets lost because of intersectionality. Mary Ann Shadd Cary is a prime example; she was a polymath whose unswerving quest for equality made her less popular than others of her cohort.  African American History Month is a great time to remember her, but so is Women’s History Month, for her work for the equality of black Americans and American women.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary Residence, Washington, D.C. [photo by J. Davis]

Ms. Shadd Cary was born Mary Ann Shadd in Wilmington, Delaware, on October 9, 1823, to free black parents. Although the population of free blacks was high in Delaware then, education opportunities for free black children were almost nil (Rhodes, 6). Her parents left Delaware in 1833 to move to West Chester, Pennsylvania, where Mary Ann Shadd attended a Quaker boarding school until she was 16. She then began teaching school, first in New Jersey, and later in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New York City. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, she moved to Windsor, Canada, where a community of expatriate African Americans was forming.

While living in Windsor, Ms. Shadd taught at an integrated school and wrote the pamphlet Notes of Canada West, urging black Americans to emigrate north as she had. Her position on integrated schooling was not common, and she wrote, “‘Whatever excuse may be offered in the states for exclusive institutions, I am convinced that … none could be offered with a shadow of reason, and with this conviction, I opened school here with the condition of admission to children of all complexions'” (Rhodes, 37). She was the first black woman to publish a weekly newspaper with her launch of The Provincial Freeman in March 1853 (Rhodes, 111). She continued to run the newspaper, writing articles for it as well as editing it, while she taught school, ran advertisements and took subscriptions to pay the bills. In 1855, she traveled to Philadelphia to attend the Colored National Convention, as the only delegate from Canada, and she showed her talent for oratory there. During her speech on Canadian emigration, she held audiences so spellbound they granted her extra time to speak (Rhodes, 109). When Isaiah Wears, an abolitionist at the convention, challenged her to a debate, she won (Rhodes, 110).

She agreed to marry Thomas Cary, a business owner of barbershops in Toronto, in 1856. He commuted between his businesses in Toronto and Chatham, where she was putting out the newspaper—another kind of first for women of her time. Her marriage was happy but short; they weathered financial struggles, the birth of their first child, and Thomas Cary’s failing health, until he died in November 1860 while she was expecting their second child (Bearden and Butler, 203). Shadd Cary was financially unable to keep the paper running, and she saw the last issue printed in June 1859. Shadd Cary was a single mother of two young children, and her financial struggles continued until 1863 when her friend Martin Delaney offered her a job recruiting black men to serve in the Union Army. She was the first black woman to actively recruit troops (Bearden and Butler, 206).

After the war, Ms. Shadd Cary continued to teach, but the black community had decreased considerably in Canada. She moved to Washington, D.C. where she became the first black woman law student, enrolling at Howard University in September 1869.  She graduated from Howard in 1870 with her LL.B, the first African American woman to get a law degree in the United States. She joined the growing women’s voting movement just as fellow activists (e.g., Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony) testified before Congress and attempted to vote.

In January 1874, Mary Ann Shadd Cary was one of 600 citizens who signed a petition that suffragists presented to the House Judiciary Committee, claiming a woman’s legal right to vote. She was a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association. Later in the 1880s, she founded the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association, which did not last long, but was another first. Cary used her law degree to help family, friends, and neighbors with legal issues, and worked for equal rights for black women and men, and women in general, until she died in Washington, D.C. in June 1893. Frederick Douglass once wrote of her, “‘We do not know of her equal among the colored ladies of the United States'” (Ferris, 16 and Rhodes, xi). Mary Ann Shadd Cary was an iconoclast; she annoyed people by refusing to be deterred or to tone down her message, and that may be the reason she is not as well-known as some of her contemporaries (Bearden and Butler, 85-88; Ferris, 28 and 49; Rhodes, xi and 22). Her accomplishments in law, education, and civil rights, in spite of these obstacles, are impressive.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary Residence sign [photo by J. Davis]

If you’re interested in other important figures in African American legal history, see our post on Fannie Lou Hamer.


LA2325.C34 Bearden, Jim and Linda Jean Butler. Shadd: the Life and Times of Mary Shadd Cary.

E185.97.C32 F47 2003 Ferris, Jeri Chase. Demanding Justice: A Story About Mary Ann Shadd Cary.

E185.97.C32 R48 1998 Rhodes, Jane. Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century.


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