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Mary Ann Shadd (October 9, 1823 – June 5, 1893)

Mary Ann Shadd was an anti-slavery activist and the first Black female newspaper editor in North America. Shadd was born on October 9, 1823, in Wilmington, Delaware to parents, Abraham and Harriet Parnell, active abolitionists, whose house was a station on the Underground Railroad. At an early age, Shadd and her family moved to Westchester, Pennsylvania, where she received an education and eventually became a teacher. Although Shadd was born a free woman, in 1850, as a result of the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, which enabled slave owners to “re-claim” escaped slaves, Shadd and her family fled to Windsor, Canada West (now Ontario) out of fear of being kidnapped. Once re-located in Windsor, Shadd put her teaching education to use, opening a school for fugitive slaves who had also fled the United States.


In 1852, after the steady arrival of black immigrants, Shadd published, A Plea for Emigration; or Notes of Canada West, a landmark statement that led to her dismissal from her teaching position but would ultimately, in 1853, lead to the creation of the first newspaper edited by an African-American woman, The Provincial Freeman.


The Provincial Freeman was published initially in Windsor, then Toronto and finally Chatham and circulated in Canada West for seven years, before its final edition was released in 1860. The paper was celebrated by the black community, as it advocated temperance, social reform and African-American emigration to Canada, welcoming contributions from local black abolitionists and advocates for the women’s rights movement. The newspaper catered to the educated black elite, promoting black involvement in political and intellectual spheres.


After the dissolution of The Provincial Freeman, Shadd returned to the United States and continued her advocacy efforts, acting as a recruiter for black soldiers during the Civil War. Adding to her list of trail-blazing accomplishments, in 1883, at the age of 60, she became the second black woman to earn a law degree in the United States.


On June 5, 1893, after a life-time of achievements, Mary Ann Shadd Cary (she had married Thomas F. Cary in 1856) passed away in Washington, D.C. She has since been commemorated as a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada.

The Provincial Freeman

The Provincial Freeman was a newspaper edited by African-American anti-slavery activist, Mary Ann Shadd, first published on March 24, 1853. Aware of strict gender-codes at the time, Shadd enlisted a partner, Samuel Ringgold Ward, a fellow black abolitionist, to act as the “face” of the paper. After a year of promotion, on March 25, 1854, The Provincial Freeman secured weekly publishing out of Toronto and was circulated across Ontario. With this, Shadd became the first African-American woman, and one of the first women in general, to edit a newspaper in North America.


Aside from being an anti-slavery newspaper, the defining feature of The Provincial Freeman, was its emphasis on black self-reliance, self-education, and integration into Canadian society. Shadd spoke out against segregation and racist practices, such as “begging”, in which individuals attempted to raise funds for newly emigrated blacks, stereotyping them as “downtrodden” and “poor”, rather than the resilient, hard workers that they were. The paper embodied Shadd’s pro-emigrationist position, encouraging Blacks to leave the slave states and re-locate to Ontario.


The paper was also a key component of the Canadian women’s movement, with Shadd speaking out against gender inequality and publishing the lectures of women’s rights activists like Lucy Stone Blackwell and abolitionist, Lucretia Mott. The Provincial Freeman was celebrated for the fact that it provided a voice to the black population, inviting key black leaders, such as abolitionist, James Madison Bell and activist, H. Ford Douglas, to contribute to its columns. After seven years of circulation and struggling to keep afloat, The Provincial Freeman published its last paper in 1860, having achieved what few papers were able to do at the time.

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