Image: Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Myseum of Toronto
Mary Ann Shadd Cary was the first Black woman to publish, edit, and run a newspaper in North America. This is her story.
As creator and editor-in-chief of The Provincial Freeman, Mary Ann Shadd had her finger on the pulse of the Underground Railroad and used her paper to track escape attempts, follow legal challenges and fight against the slave trade. The Freeman’s office was located at 143 King St. East.
Face portrait of Mary Ann Shadd Cary.
Shadd became an important leader of the abolitionist movement in both Canada and the United States. While still in her 20s, she composed a pamphlet called “Hints to the Colored People of the North”, which implored free African-Americans to seek both physical and spiritual independence from the ideals of White America.
Citing a distrust of the American government (who permitted states to legalize/outlaw slavery), Shadd predicted the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, a law that allowed for slaveowners to capture escaped slaves anywhere in the United States. Alert to the present injustices free Black men and women in the United States, she joined the famous 1851 North American Convention of Coloured Freemen, a gathering of Black intellectuals and community leaders who sought to provide resettlement solutions for escaping slaves.
An 1852 follow-up, A Plea for Emigration; or Notes of Canada West (1852), encouraged African-Americans to seek greener pastures in Canada, where Shadd established her small publishing fiefdom away from the United States.
A Plea for Emigration explored the agriculture, economy, labour sector and social life of Upper Canada, ensuring that any refugees traveling north would be prepared to seek employment—and advocate for themselves if faced with racial discrimination. Her view of Upper Canada was, for the time, rather optimistic:
“The general tone of society,” she wrote, “is healthy; vice is discountenanced, and infractions of the law promptly punished; and added to this, there is increasing anti-slavery sentiment, and a progressive system of religion.”
From her Toronto bureau, she urged free and captive African-Americans to seek refuge in Canada and offered guidance for those seeking to start anew in Upper Canada.
Shadd continued to publish the Freeman until 1859, and four years later, she left for the United States to work as a recruiter for the Union Army, who fought the Confederate Army in the American Civil War.