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Mary Ann Shadd Cary: Trailblazer for Feminism, Freedom

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This is a guest blog by Jennifer Davis, a collection specialist in the Law Library’s Collection Services Division.  It is has been slightly edited from her original blog. 

Mary Ann Shadd Cary residence, Washington, D.C. (photo by J. Davis)

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was a 19th Century African-American feminist, lawyer, anti-slavery crusader and newspaper publisher. She was also, as our colleague Jennifer Davis pointed out recently on a In Custodia Legis blog, a polymath who challenged the definition of what it meant to be a woman in her era. Even better, she often won those challenges.

We’re recounting a brief bit of that history here, in part because it’s Women’s History Month, but also because Cary seems not to be as widely remembered as many of her trailblazing contemporaries. This is perhaps because she was an “iconoclast” who “annoyed people by refusing to be deterred or to tone down her message,” Davis notes. At the age of 25, she wrote Frederick Douglass, “We should do more and talk less.” She wasn’t kidding, and she wasn’t here for nonsense.

She was born Mary Ann Shadd in Wilmington, Del., on October 9, 1823, to free parents. Although the population of free blacks was high in Delaware at the time, educational opportunities for black children were almost nil. Her parents left in 1833, moving to West Chester, Pa., where she 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.

When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, she moved to Windsor, Canada — just across the Detroit River from, well, Detroit — to join a community of expatriate African Americans. While there, she taught at an integrated school and wrote the pamphlet Notes of Canada Westurging black Americans to emigrate north as she had. She was the first black woman to publish a weekly newspaper, launching the abolitionist The Provincial Freeman in Chatham, a small city east of Windsor, in March 1853. She did everything at the paper — wrote, reported, edited, sold ads and subscriptions – all while keeping her day job as a teacher. In 1855, she traveled to Philadelphia to speak at the Colored National Convention, dazzling the crowd with her gift for oratory.

She married Thomas Cary, who owned several barbershops in Toronto, the following year. He commuted the 180 miles from Toronto to Chatham, trying to make ends meet, but the couple struggled financially. They had a daughter, but his health was failing. He died in 1860, when she was pregnant with their second child. The paper finally collapsed.

She was now the single mother of two young children, nearing 40 — and just getting started. When the Civil War ignited, she was appointed as a recruiting officer for the U.S. Army, the first black woman to be so designated. She moved to Indiana to enlist African American soldiers in the war effort. After Appomattox, she moved to D.C., settling into a rowhouse at 1421W St. NW, and enrolled in Howard University’s Law Department. She graduated in 1870, now in her late 40s, becoming the first African-American woman to get a law degree in the United States.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary Residence sign (photo by J. Davis)

Gaining steam, she joined the growing women’s voting movement. Fellow activists such as Douglass and Susan B. Anthony testified before Congress, and she was one of 600 citizens who signed a petition that suffragists presented to the House Judiciary Committee, arguing for a woman’s right to vote. She joined the National Woman Suffrage Association. Later in the 1880s, she founded the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association.

In her final years, Cary used her degree to help family, friends and neighbors in her D.C. neighborhood deal with legal issues. She continued to work for women’s rights and for equal rights for all black Americans. She died in June 1893. Douglass once wrote of her, “We do not know of her equal among the colored ladies of the United States.”

It was, by any measure, a remarkable life.

You can read more about her here:

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.

Comments (4)

  1. I am interested in learning more about how Mary Ann Shadd Cary was able to win the right to vote in Federal elections while living in DC decades before the 19th Amendment.

    This fact is stated on the sign in front of her residence. What is the original source of this information?

    Any information you could provide would be very helpful.

    Thank you!

    • Hi John,
      We’ll check with the experts and get back to you!

    • Hi John,
      Jennifer Davis, the researcher who filed that post, says she has never found a verifiable source for the assertion that Ms. Shadd Cary voted. The NPS does not cite a source for the information on the plaque. There are, however, some reports that women tried to vote in D.C. and when discovered, their ballots were invalidated, but Ms. Shadd Cary’s name is not mentioned.

      Hope that helps,

  2. I have researched MASC for 24 years. My opinion is that Mary Ann might have studied with Phoebe Darlington in Darlington’s home or at one of the West Chester meetings. Phoebe studied at Westtown School for one year, leaving after 1833 at the age of 16.
    MASC was never able to vote.
    I nominated this remarkable woman to the Hall of Fame for Delaware Women in 1997 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998. I nominated her family for a Delaware Historical Marker, to be dedicated this spring or summer. The Wilmington, DE Post Office will be renamed the MASC Post Office thanks to Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester.
    I am trying to locate her desendants–surviving child at her death was Sarah Elizabeth Cary.

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