When The Hon. Donald H. Oliver introduced his Motion to Recognize Contributions of Black Canadians and February as Black History Month to the senate floor, he did so with the hope that education on Black history would help combat prejudice and discrimination and empower Black Canadians.

Furthermore, Senator Oliver believed we should honour and celebrate Black people’s contributions, past and present, to the development of Canadian society and culture. The Parliament of Canada officially recognized Black History Month in 2008, thanks to the efforts of Senator Oliver and those before him.

In the spirit of Black History Month, we would like you to join us as we learn about, honour, and celebrate the life and work of Mary Ann Camberton Shadd.

Shadd was a woman of many talents who worked tirelessly for the emancipation and education of Black people. She was a writer, publisher, educator, abolitionist, and feminist. Shadd is recognized as the first Black female newspaper publisher in Canada and one of the first women to complete a law degree. She founded and edited The Provincial Freeman and started a racially integrated school for Black refugees in Windsor, Canada West.  

Early Life

Shadd was born on October 9, 1823, in Wilmington, Delaware. She was born to free parents in a slave state. Her father, Abraham D. Shadd, was a prominent abolitionist, and her childhood home was a safe house/station on the Underground Railroad. Her parents’ work and worldviews had a significant influence on Shadd’s education and career.

Because Delaware had laws that prohibited the education of Black people, Shadd’s parents sent her to a Quaker school in Pennsylvania. Once she completed her studies, she began teaching throughout the northeastern states, including New York City. 

Work

After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Shadd attended the first North American Convention of Coloured Freeman in 1851 at St. Lawrence Hall in Toronto. There, she met Henry and Mary Bibb, who convinced her to take a teaching position near their home in Sandwich (Windsor), Canada West.

Once she settled in Canada, Shadd established a racially integrated school with funding from the American Missionary Association (AMA). However, due to her public disputes with the Bibbs, who opposed integrated schools, she lost her funding from the AMA.

Shadd began writing educational pamphlets outlining Canada’s advantages to convince other Black people to move to Canada. In 1853, Shadd founded The Provincial Freeman. She used her weekly publications to document Black people’s successes in Canada to promote immigration, provide a voice for black perspectives, and promote Black and women’s rights.

Unfortunately, the paper was unable to meet its financial obligations and collapsed in 1860.

While working in Canada, Shadd met her husband Thomas F. Cary, whom she married in 1856. They had two children together, but he died a few years later. She continued working as a schoolteacher in Chatham, Canada West, until the American Civil War broke out.

Recognizing the war’s significance, Shadd moved back to the U.S. to work as a recruiting officer for the Union army in Indiana. She devoted herself to encouraging Black Americans to join the fight against the Confederacy and slavery.

Later Years

Once the war was won, Shadd eventually moved to Washington, D.C., to continue working as a schoolteacher. Shadd went on to study law at Howard University, and in 1883, became the second Black woman in the U.S. to complete a law degree.

The motto of The Provincial Freeman was “Self-Reliance Is the True Road to Independence.” Shadd embodied this motto and worked hard to instill this philosophy in the Black population in North America. Shadd was designated a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada in 1994. She was a trailblazer amongst trailblazers that helped pave the road toward a more just and equitable future.  

Check back for more articles throughout Black History Month!