Mary Ann Shadd: Journalism, Activism, and the Power of Words | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Mary Ann Shadd: Journalism, Activism, and the Power of Words

Listen to Strong and Free, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada, produced by Media Girlfriends. Because Black history is Canadian history.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was the first Black woman to publish a newspaper in North America. But Mary Ann Shadd didn’t just make history by being first. With her newspaper “The Provincial Freeman,” she captured history. Today, her perspective deepens our understanding of the past and is an example of why representation in journalism matters.

In this episode, we have the pleasure of speaking with two of Shadd’s descendants: Marishana Mabusela, our researcher for this podcast, and her mother, writer and historian Adrienne Shadd.

Garvia Bailey: In this day and age, we’re marinating in news all the time.

But let me ask you, who writes the news? Whose voices help explain the big stories of our time?

In Canada, studies have shown that as the Canadian population becomes more diverse, our media gets whiter. A 2019 Ryerson University study on newspaper columnists showed that there wasn’t one Black woman writing a regular newspaper column in Canada from 1998 to 2018. A newspaper columnist uses facts but also gives their opinion, their perspective on the world. And in this time frame of this recent study, there wasn’t one Black woman columnist in any major Canadian newspaper.

That absence is one of the reasons why it’s so important to learn the story of Mary Ann Shadd Cary - who she was, what she did, and why she matters more than ever today, more than 100 years after her death. Pioneering Black journalist, feminist, lawyer, educator, and anti-slavery activist. She paved the way for so many others, like me, Garvia Bailey, to report on the news and bring my perspective as a Black woman to the goings on in our world.

But maybe you’re asking, why does race even matter when it comes to news information? Shouldn’t the news be...neutral? Objective?

You tell me.

First let me tell you the story of Mary Ann Shadd Cary. In 1853, she became the first Black woman in North America to publish a newspaper. The Provincial Freeman printed stories on the biggest news of the day: on school segregation, enslavement and its abolition, the Underground Railroad – huge events written by a trailblazing Black woman documenting our history.

I’m Garvia Bailey. Welcome to Strong and Free, a podcast from Historica Canada. Because Black history is Canadian history.

Let me start by taking you back in time to a Zoom call I was in to create this very podcast, actually. There were 8 or 9 of us talking about which stories we wanted to tell. I brought up Mary Ann Shadd Cary because I’m a journalist and I’m inspired by her commitment to education and journalism.

And then the researcher on this project, Marishana, speaks up.

Marishana Mabusela: So, I think I was pitching my ideas for this podcast. And we came to Mary Ann Shadd and I quickly and modestly mentioned, “Oh, yeah, and if you don't know she's my great-great-great-great aunt.”

GB: Yes, you heard that right. Our researcher Marishana is related to Mary Ann Shadd. None of us knew! And she just said it real casual…

MM: And I was going to quickly move on but the whole… the whole zoom party kicked off. Everyone stopped and kind of screamed. Not screamed, but…

GB: Yeah, I’m pretty sure I did scream.

MM: When you heard that I was a direct descendant, I think you guys were just trying to process it, but it all came out as like extreme excitement.

GB: Minds were blown. Minds were blown.

MM: Right.

GB: I was dying to learn more about Mary Ann Shadd and suddenly, I realized I was talking to one of her family members. I was going to learn her story through family. What an honour.

Marishana’s known the story of Mary Ann Shadd her whole life thanks to her mom, who is an expert in Black Canadian history. So yeah, we pretty much begged Marishana to do a ‘Bring Your Mom to Work Day.’

MM: I’m Marishana Mabusela and I’m sitting here with my mother, Adrienne Shadd.

Adrienne Shadd: Hi, I’m Adrienne Shadd, and this is my daughter, Marishana.

GB: Marishana grew up surrounded by her mom’s research on Mary Ann Shadd Cary. By the way, sometimes the name Cary is used which is her married name but often she’s just called Mary Ann Shadd.

MM: I remember seeing her face on several of the books that you have. And she has a very distinct like, stare. And I remember seeing it all over the place. And I finally asked, “Who is this? Why is she on all of these books? And why is there only one photo?” That's what I think, as a young kid, that's what I cared about, like, why can't they get another photo? You know?

AS: I have no memory of that whatsoever.

GB: Now, I understand that there were some events that your mom took you to commemorate Mary Ann Shadd Cary. Can you guys tell me about those events?

MM: Sure. So when I was 16...15, 16?

AS: Yeah. July of 2007.

MM: The family organized a repatriation trip to all of the sites where, well, Mary Ann Shadd and her family lived in the United States. I was the only kid with all of these seniors.

So that just shows you that I loved history and I wanted to experience this.

GB: They visited Pennsylvania and Delaware. At one point, they visited Mary Ann Shadd’s home in Washington, DC.

MM: I was just happy to be there and to learn and be around my grandfather. And my great aunt Doris.

AS: Right.

MM: Yeah. And various other family members who I would only see maybe once a year during the Buxton homecoming.

GB: North Buxton is in southwestern Ontario. It’s a community that was built by, and for, formerly enslaved Black people. It’s near where the Shadd family started life in Canada and it’s where Adrienne grew up. Every Labour Day, the community celebrates their Black heritage with a parade -

MM: Historical reenactments. A church service, there’s like a family versus family, baseball game.

AS: Baseball tournament, right.

MM: There’s a, what? A social dance.

AS: Yeah.

GB: People get together in homes; they have parties and cookouts. North Buxton keeps their Black history alive. Which is good for Adrienne, it’s how she learned she’s related to Mary Ann Shadd.

AS: Well, the funny thing is I didn't start out knowing anything about this woman at all, I didn’t know she existed until I was a teenager. Believe it or not! One summer I was… had nothing to do so I figured I'll go over to the museum. And so, I sauntered in there just to spend a couple of hours and the curator of the museum, she sort of casually handed me this article. And I looked at it and it had said, “Mary Ann Shadd, suffragette, teacher, lawyer, newspaper publisher.”  And I said, “Wow, who the heck is this woman? Never heard of her!”

GB: We are fortunate that Adrienne rediscovered this part of her own family lineage because she made it her life’s work to research Black history and keep it alive. Which her daughter, Marishana, does too, working on the podcast you’re listening to right now.

So, we let Marishana get back to work and stayed on the line with THE expert on Mary Ann Shadd: historian, author, curator, and Marishana’s mom, Adrienne Shadd.

Tell us about the early life of Mary Ann Shadd.

AS: She was born in 1823, in Wilmington, Delaware.

GB: The eldest of 13 children born to Abraham and Harriett Shadd.

AS: Her parents moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania, when she was about 10 years old, we believe so that the family, the children, could be educated. Because there was no continuing school for Black children in Wilmington at the time. She got an education in a Quaker school. She became a teacher herself when she was still a teenager.

GB: During this time in the early 1800s, hundreds of thousands of African Americans were enslaved in the South. Mary Ann’s parents, Abraham and Harriet, were free-born people who devoted their lives to activism to end slavery - or abolitionism. Abraham and Harriet opened their home as a stop on the Underground Railroad, which was a secret network of safe houses to help African Americans escape enslavement.

AS: So obviously, she grew up in a very activist home.

GB: And part of that activism was education. For the Shadds, education was a priority even when it wasn’t readily available to Black people.

AS: If you had an education, it was your responsibility to give back and to uplift the next generation.

GB: Tell us the story of how Mary Ann Shadd Cary actually came to Canada. How did that come about?

AS: So as I understand it, she attended the Convention of Coloured Freemen, or the Free People of Colour in 1851 that was held in Toronto, actually.

GB: Ok, let’s pause for context. What was the Convention of Coloured Freemen? Hundreds of Black community leaders came from all over for this convention, which was being held outside of America for the first time. Toronto, in the British colony of Canada West, was a place where slavery, according to British law, was illegal.

Not so in America. Just the year before this convention, in 1850, the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which meant that people escaping slavery could be recaptured, even in states where enslavement had been abolished. It was a dangerous time to be Black, free or not. This convention in Toronto in 1851 was an opportunity for Black organizers to strategize.

Mary Ann Shadd was 27 years old, and she was there.

AS: And Henry Bibb was one of the organizers of that convention.

At that point, I guess she met Henry and Mary Bibb.

GB: Ok, I’m going to cut in again. Who were Henry and Mary Bibb?

They were a married Black couple who were well-known, well-respected abolitionists from the United States who moved to southwestern Ontario. The Bibbs really have a whole other story of their own, one that involves Henry being born into slavery, escaping, and writing one of the best-known books of the experience of living as an enslaved person.

For the Bibbs, it was a life mission to set up schools for Black children and help Black Americans find their way to Canada. That’s why Henry Bibb organized the Convention for Coloured Freemen in 1851, where they met Mary Ann Shadd.

AS: She met Henry and Mary Bibb. They recognized that she would be a good candidate to come and set up a school in the Windsor area where there was such a great need.

There were people coming in all the time. You know, many of them, fugitive slaves whose children and even the adults had never had access to an education because they were barred from having, getting an education by their slave owners. So, there were all these people coming in, you know, daily or weekly. And there were teachers desperately needed in that area to teach the kids and the adults.

GB: At the time, the government would pay for half a teacher’s salary or you could go your own way and create a private school. Both routes weren’t easy. Black communities had the will to form schools but not much money.

The Bibbs and Mary Ann Shadd were passionate about teaching in Black communities, but they started to have a big difference of opinion on how to do it.

At the time, there was a new, growing sense that all children should have access to school, whether you could afford it or not. But the idea of public schools, or what was then called “common” schools, was still pretty new. The Common School Act of 1850 was meant to make it so students could come together regardless of race or religion. But that’s not how things played out.

Black women teachers were often discriminated against and weren’t hired in the public education system. Meanwhile, Black families, as long as there were at least five, could come together to request their own school. This created public schools segregated by race. It may not have been the intention of the law but it’s what happened.

And the Bibbs were not opposed to government-funded public schools as an alternative way to educate Black children. Mary Ann Shadd disagreed.

AS: Actually, the first school she set up was not a government school because she herself disagreed with, as she put it, she did not believe in complexional schools, as that was the wording she used.

GB: In other words, Mary Ann Shadd didn’t believe schools should be segregated by race, as many public schools were.

But if she wasn’t going to take government funds, where would she get the money?

AS: She ended up getting funding from the American Missionary Association, which helped sustain her for the next year or so in this school that she set up.

GB: The American Missionary Association wanted to abolish enslavement and provide education for African Americans. So, she got the money she needed.

But now the Bibbs and Mary Ann Shadd were having very real conflict over what they each felt was the best educational path for the Black community in Windsor. Henry Bibb published his views in a newspaper he founded called, The Voice of the Fugitive. A newspaper is important because it gets things on the record. What you publish in the moment becomes how we understand history.

Mary Ann Shadd began to be publicly vocal with her views, too. In a newspaper. Her own.

In March of 1853, she published the very first edition of The Provincial Freeman. It featured prominent thinkers in the abolitionist movement. But this was not work or behaviour that was expected of women at the time.

Here’s an opinion published in Henry Bibb’s newspaper back then: “Miss Shadd has said and written many things which we think will add nothing to her credit as a lady.”

AS: You know, I don't even know how she got the gumption to stand up for herself, particularly at that time and that era when women just simply did not do that. They could not, should not be outspoken, and, you know, go against the male leaders of a community,

GB: Mary Ann Shadd was fighting for the freedom of Black people, navigating the anti-Blackness of Canadian society. As she fought against racism, she had to deal with sexism, too, the public, strong criticism from men in the Black community, like Henry Bibb.

She created a “Women’s Rights” column in The Provincial Freeman. Here’s a sample:

“Some men foolishly deny to a woman the right to speak in public, to practice medicine or to vote. All we have to say about this is -- Pshaw!”

As determined and outspoken as she was, in the early years of her newspaper, she didn’t use the name Mary Ann. She went by her first initials, MA. People wrote letters to the editor that started with “Dear Sir,” or “brother Shadd.” She featured the name of a male colleague on the masthead of the paper. She let the public, at least initially, think this paper was run by a man. Why?

AS: Because women did not take the lead in these kind of matters. So, this was a very uncommon thing for a woman to do. And she didn't, obviously, feel comfortable putting her name on it as a female publisher and editor.

GB: If you were reading The Provincial Freeman, you knew where she stood. Every issue stated right up top, “Self-reliance is the true road to independence.”

Mary Ann Shadd published her newspaper from 1853 to 1860, documenting Black life and politics in three locations: Windsor, Toronto, and Chatham. And all the while, her newspaper work was rooted in her values as a teacher.

AS: Publishing was another aspect to education. You know, she was educating in this classroom, and she was educating by putting out her newspaper and telling African Americans, “Come to Canada, you're equal before the law. There's opportunities here that you may not have in the United States”.


GB: Mary Ann Shadd wrote, “We say to the slave, you have a right to your freedom and to every other privilege connected with it and if you cannot secure these in Virginia or Alabama, by all means make your escape, without delay, to some other locality in God’s wide universe.”

That’s not to say there wasn’t hardship for Black people in Canada. There was a lot of discrimination Black people faced here, too. But Mary Ann Shadd was determined to provide options for Black people through knowledge.

AS: So, it was all part of the educational journey that she was on and that she wanted to impart to her community.

GB: Remember where Mary Ann Shadd got the funds to run her school for Black refugees in Windsor? It came from the American Missionary Association. And Mary Ann Shadd needed that money, so she kept writing letters to the association to tell them about her school. Those letters are a treasure trove for our historical knowledge.

AS: She would talk about, “Okay, I taught these subjects: Algebra, History, you know, Mathematics.” It’s just all this interesting detail about her classes.

The funny thing is, though, everybody says she taught in integrated school, but the fact is it was integrated in name only, because I don't think there were ever any white students who went to any of the schools that she had, at least in Canada.

GB: White families weren’t sending their children to Mary Ann Shadd’s schools. Remember, anti-Black racism shaped a school system that was often segregated here in Canada.

AS: Mary Ann Shadd, I know that if she had had any white students, she certainly would have mentioned that she had white students in her school.

GB: She was working against multiple levels of pushback.

All of this. She's doing it as a woman.

AS: Well, what, that's the other thing. Men were the leaders; however, Black women were doing a lot. She wasn't the only Black woman who was really making a contribution in the community.

Somebody wrote a thesis on Black teachers in Canada West at that time, and showed that there were more Black women teachers, compared with Black men, than in the wider community, where it was white men who started out as being primarily the teachers in the schools, and white women, you know, they came into teaching a bit later. But for Black women, they were always some of the main people teaching in these - in Black schools. So, she wasn't the only one.

GB: Ok, I just want you to make sure you caught that. Our history books might celebrate white men but in Mary Ann Shadd’s area of Ontario, like Buxton and Windsor, Black women were doing the work of educating future Mary Ann Shadd’s area of Ontario, like Buxton and Windsor,  Black women were doing the work of educating future generations.

AS: You know, Black history is still to this day considered to be like a footnote to the real Canadian history, which is primarily about white men, white male leaders.

I mean, I've heard stories of important people laughing when the topic of Black history comes up, as if it was so unimportant as to be laughable.

GB: Imagine, accomplishing so much and your story being something to laugh at?

Black history is Canadian history. And history connects us to this moment now, to you, today, to our issues, the ones we still have, the ones that motivate people to flood streets by the millions for Black Lives Matter protests. If we want to know who we are today, we need to know who we were then. And who was showing leadership. Like Mary Ann Shadd Cary.

She eventually returned to America, but in the time that she was here in Canada, what was her station in life, like what was her, like, economically? How did she get along? What was her, kind of, day to day station?

AS: Well, she was very highly regarded by the local communities, but she struggled financially. And the paper certainly did not bring in very much money. And one of my relatives said that she was really, the paper was really a service to the community. It wasn’t a financial venture that was really very successful in that way. So, I don’t know.

GB: She struggled. It sounds to me that she did this because of that activist heart that she had.

AS: And I think, you know, if any of us had lived at that time, and slavery existed, and people were trying to escape and come to Canada, we would probably all be on the front lines, you know, wanting to do whatever we could to help these people. And she was doing what she could in whatever way she could, you know, as a teacher, as a newspaper editor, lecturer, you know, she was doing it all because the need was so great.

GB: Mary Ann Shadd continued to publish her paper, first in Windsor, where she opened her school for Black refugees, then Toronto, then Chatham. In the 1860s, she was asked to recruit Black soldiers for the Union Army to fight in the American Civil War. So, she traveled back and forth between Canada and the United States, and Adrienne thinks she left Canada permanently in the late 1860s.

AS: I think after she left, she was basically forgotten about for a long time. It wasn't until maybe the 1950s or 60s that the paper was rediscovered. So, she hasn't been celebrated until more recently.

GB: Now there’s a school named after her in Toronto and a plaque at the downtown Toronto building where she published her newspaper. There was even a Google doodle about her in 2020.

How would you encapsulate then her legacy, if we’re just going to talk about the - what she’s left us with?

AS: Well, as a historian, she has left a tremendous legacy in the paper itself.

GB: In The Provincial Freeman.

AS: I've read, basically, the three years of extant issues that we have. And it's just like, gives us a tremendous amount of information on what was going on in the Black community at that time.

And there's so much we learn about what was going on: the feuds, the ideological differences between different groups, just all kinds of things, who owned businesses that had ads in the paper. It's just a fantastic resource. And just, if we didn't have that paper, we’d be, we would know so much less about what was happening at that time in the Black community in Ontario.

GB: It does speak so much to, because even today, we talk about how representation matters, and the ownership of media, and who gets to tell the stories, how much it matters.

AS: And she impacted people at - during her time. People were so proud, you know, that this paper existed, and it was owned and put out by Black people. And it was - they considered it their paper, even if they didn't pay their dues, they were proud of it. 

GB: It really does speak to right now, I think, you know, being able to tell our own stories, and own the means to do that, still feels so very important. It feels like the things that she was fighting for then are the things that we -

AS: - we're still fighting for.

GB: Yeah. Yeah.

Today’s episode, learning this history, makes me think a lot about what’s happening today in our world. The Black women who organize and show leadership on social media, in classrooms, in government, maybe in your own family, working at home. The Black women who do the work.

There’s an old saying that journalism is the first rough draft of history. And as Adrienne points out, Mary Ann Shadd didn’t just make history - she also wrote it in her newspaper. Her perspective deepens our understanding of the past. It’s an example of why representation in journalism, who gets to record history, matters every single day.

Mary Ann Shadd was a trailblazer in media. But she wasn’t in it for herself. She was in it for the cause. Freedom through education and empowerment.

As the first Black woman newspaper publisher in North America and the second Black woman to obtain a law degree in the United States, a champion of civil rights, an educator, and by speaking up during a time when it was very rare for a woman to be a public speaker, Mary Ann Shadd continued the work done by her parents, Abraham and Harriet. And her descendants do, too. Marishana’s doing the work on this podcast, keeping us connected to the life and work of Mary Ann Shadd.

MM: I feel like this project that we're working on is kind of, I don’t know, serendipitous or destiny because I feel like I'm following exactly in her footsteps.

GB: And the work of her mom, Adrienne, paved the way.

MM: It just all came together so perfectly because I had my mom as this, like, amazing, historical resource.

And I feel like... I feel like being your daughter, there's some, like, there's a reason that I was your daughter. So, I'm still trying to figure out how that will manifest in the future but it's coming. There's's coming.

GB: Thank you for listening.

Strong and Free was produced by Media Girlfriends and Historica Canada.

This series is part of a larger Black history education campaign by Historica Canada. For more resources, visit

You can find Strong and Free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

This episode was written and produced by Hannah Sung.

Senior producers are myself and Hannah Sung.

Sound design and mix by Gabbie Clarke and David Moreau.

The Media Girlfriends team is rounded out Josiane Blanc, Lucius Dechausay, Jeff Woodrow, and Nana aba Duncan, the founder of Media Girlfriends.

Thank you to Marishana Mabusela and to our script consultant, writer & historian Adrienne Shadd.

Fact-checking by Sean Young.

I'm Garvia Bailey, thanks for listening.