Mary Ann Shadd was an anti-slavery activist, a teacher, a lawyer and the first Black woman publisher in North America. Shadd was born as the oldest of 13 children to Abraham Shadd and Harriet Parnell Shadd in Wilmington, DE. The family left Wilmington for the Philadelphia area when the state enacted a law forbidding the education of African-American children. Shortly after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Shadd and her brother Isaac emigrated to Windsor, Ontario. The others of her family emigrated to nearby North Buxton, Ontario.
In Windsor, Shadd started an anti-slavery newspaper, called the Provincial Freeman. Shadd edited the newspaper, which had a circulation throughout Canada and in northern cities across the U.S., from 1853-1860. The newspaper was part of a small but critical network of Black-run newspapers and publications that provided critical commentary and information in the years preceding the Civil War. In addition to her work as a publisher, Shadd founded an integrated school in Windsor as well.
She returned to the U.S. in 1860 after the death of her husband. During the Civil War, she worked to support black enlistment in the Union Army.
Following the war, Shadd taught school in Wilmington and then Washington, D.C. She returned to school herself and graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1883 at the age of 60. She also joined the National Women’s Suffrage Association, speaking at the 1878 convention. She participated in suffrage rallies in the U.S. and Canada in her later years and worked with both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
Engaging a political tactic dubbed, “The New Departure” in which women would push the limits of the 14th and 15th Amendment by attempting to vote in local and national elections, Mary Ann Shadd joined two other African American women–lawyer Charlotte E. Ray and Frederick Douglass’ daughter-in-law in an attempt to register to vote in the first “territorial” elections in Washington D.C. in 1871. This attempt, while thwarted, was one of a host of challenges made in coordinated trips in cities and towns across the U.S. by groups of Black women, groups of white women and some mixed-race groups. These actions, set the stage for Susan B. Anthony’s famous arrest in 1872 for casting a ballot in Rochester, NY and generally contributed to the important ongoing march toward women’s enfranchisement.