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Mary and Henry Bibb, Committed Couple

For the week of Monday July 29, 2013

On August 1, 1854, Henry Bibb died at the age of 39. With his wife Mary, he contributed to the establishment of the Black population in Upper Canada.

Henry Bibb
© Courtesy of Documenting the American South of the Chapel Hill Libraries at the University of North Carolina
Born into slavery in 1815, Henry Bibb managed to escape in 1837 after several attempts. However, he was captured once again six months later when he tried to return for his first wife Malinda and their daughter. The family members were sold to different masters and separated forever. In 1840, Henry managed to escape once and for all and settled in Detroit, where he learned to read and write. As an activist for the abolition of slavery, he wrote in newspapers, lectured, played an active role in the underground railroad—a secret network created to help slaves on the run—and wrote his autobiography.

In 1848, he married Mary Miles, the daughter of free Blacks who had received a good education. She was one of the first Black women to be admitted to a Normal School, a teacher training institution. She then taught in a number of schools in the United States and openly crusaded for the abolition of slavery. Mary and Henry went into exile in Upper Canada (now Ontario) when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in the United States in 1850.

In Ontario, the couple became involved in the province’s Black community and founded the Voice of the Fugitive newspaper in 1851, the first newspaper of its kind in Upper Canada. It became a forum in which the Black community could express itself on the issues that affected it. While Mary also wrote articles, edited and managed the newspaper, her husband was often given credit for her work. The newspaper lost its readership when another newspaper, the Provincial Freeman, managed by Mary Ann Shadd, and addressing the same Black community, began. The Voice of the Fugitive folded in 1854.

The Bibb family advocated freedom, the abolition of slavery, and access to education and land ownership which they deemed necessary for community development and growth. Mary founded and managed a school, while Henry lectured. Moreover, the couple promoted the Refugee Home Society, a charitable organization that collected donations to purchase land in the Windsor area and resell it at reasonable prices to fugitive slaves. After her husband died in 1854, Mary Bibb remarried and continued teaching; she finally moved to New York City, where she died in 1877.

It was for their influence on the development of the African-Canadian community with their Voice of the Fugitive newspaper that Mary and Henry Bibb were designated as Persons of National Historic Significance in 2002. Mary Ann Shadd was designated as a Person of National Historic Significance in 1994.

For more information on other sites, persons, and events of national significance related to Black history in Canada, please read the following articles from This Week in History: Abolitionist John Brown Visits Chatham, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn Test the Fugitive Offenders Act, Reverend Richard Preston Fights Slavery!, The Legendary Harriet Tubman, Slavery Attacked in Upper Canada, Champion of Freedom! and A Voice for Freedom.

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