This Week in History


A Voice for Freedom

For the week of Monday February 15, 1999

In mid-February, 1857, the Provincial Freeman distributed a circular written by Mary Ann Shadd and others as a desperate plea for funds. Like many other small newspapers in sparsely settled areas, this abolitionist paper struggled to survive.

Mary Ann Shadd

Mary Ann Shadd
© Library and Archives Canada / C-29977

Born on October 9, 1823, in Wilmington, Delaware, Mary Ann became one of the first Black women in North America to edit a newspaper. At an early age, she was introduced to the importance of the abolitionist cause. The Shadd family home was a "station" on the Underground Railroad. They concealed slaves fleeing to the North and freedom. Living in a slave state, the free Shadd family risked sacrificing their liberty every time they sheltered a fugitive slave!

Mary Ann Shadd moved to Upper Canada in 1851 when the United States began enforcing the Fugitive Slave Law. This law threatened the freedom of all African Americans. Mary Ann believed that self-reliance was a key to independence. In Canada, she established a school where both black and white pupils could attend together. Outspoken for a woman of her time, Shadd called for equal rights for all people regardless of race or sex. She encouraged skilled Black immigrants to begin a new life for themselves in Canada where they could prosper under the full protection of British law.

The Provincial Freeman

The Provincial Freeman
© Toronto Reference Library

During the Civil War, Mary Ann left Canada for the United States to become a recruiting agent in the Union (Northern) Army. She later became a school principal, once again demonstrating her commitment to education as a means of self-improvement. At the age of 60, Shadd became the first Black woman to receive a law degree in North America.

Until her death in 1893, Mary Ann Shadd continued to speak out against inequality and segregation. She is recognised by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada as editor of the Provincial Freeman in the 1850s and an important spokesperson for Black refugees in Canada.

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