Mary Ann was remarkable. Born in 1823, she managed to be the first woman publisher of a newspaper in North America, the first woman to enter Howard University Law School, the second black woman to obtain a Law Degree, and the first black woman to cast a vote in a National Election. In addition, she taught and ran several schools both in Canada and the U.S. She also found time to become a wife and raise five children!
She was the oldest of thirteen children born to Abraham and Harriet Shadd, free blacks living in Wilmington, Delaware. When Mary Ann was 10, the family moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania so that she could attend a Quaker-run school there. At sixteen, Mary Ann moved back to Wilmington and opened a school for black students.
When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, Mary Ann moved to Canada. She settled in Windsor, Canada West (Ontario). The black community there encouraged her to open a school for black children, but Mary Ann had a better idea. She opened a school for ALL children, which didn’t sit well with a bunch of people, black community leaders included. This began a long feud with Henry Bibb and his wife Mary, publishers of the Voice of the Fugitives, a black newspaper. Accusations flew on both sides as they charged each other with embezzling funds. The acrimony lasted long after Henry Bibb’s death, which was particularly unfortunate since Mary Bibb then married Mary Ann’s brother Isaac.
Partly to get her revenge on the Bibb’s, Mary Ann began her own newspaper, the Provincial Freeman. In it, she espoused on her vision of integration and equal rights for blacks and women through articles, poetry, essays and letters. She eventually moved the paper to Toronto and then Chatham. In 1856 she married Thomas Cary of Toronto, a barber and father of three. Sadly, they weren’t married long, for Thomas Cary died in 1860. Mary Ann was pregnant at the time with the couple’s second child.
When Civil War broke out in the U.S., Mary Ann was asked to become a recruiter for the Union Army. She worked first in Connecticut and then Indiana, and at the war’s end decided to stay in the States. She obtained a teaching certificate in Detroit. She then moved her family to Washington, D.C., where she became a public school teacher in 1869.
When Mary Ann was forty-six years old, she entered the Law School at Howard University, learning at night while continuing to teach. It took four years after she graduated before she was given her law degree. In the meantime, she wrote for the National Era and The People’s Advocate newspapers.
She joined Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the National Woman’s Suffrage Association, and testified before the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary died in Washington, D.C. in 1893.