Watching and reading news stories about immigrants in the U.S. fleeing to Canada for fear of being deported by Donald Trump’s xenophobic policies prompted thoughts of a past when black Americans fled to Canada to escape slavery. While U.S. schools have taught quite a bit in recent years about the Underground Railroad, much less has been taught about what actually happened to black folks once they got there.
As Women’s History Month draws to a close, it would be interesting to examine some of what I’ve learned about Canada, blacks from the U.S. settling there, abolition, and women. Years ago I spent time researching an oral history of my mom’s great aunt Annie, who fled enslavement in Loudoun County, Virginia, as a young girl and made it all the way to Canada on foot. According to my aunts who knew her, Annie and another girl were smuggled out of Loudoun by a free black bargeman. They then walked overland, sleeping in fields.
One story they remember her telling is about approaching a house owned by white people to ask for food. They were allowed to sleep on the porch next to the family dog to stay warm but were given no blankets. Not quite the passage one imagines when “underground railroad” is mentioned in school. Aunt Annie didn’t like to talk much about her experience in slavery—or at least didn’t talk about it much in front of children. My aunts only remember that she ran because she said she had “a very mean mistress.” She did not remain in Canada after slavery ended and returned to the states, where she married and bought a home back in Loudoun.
In the process of doing that research, I happened upon the story of Mary Ann Shadd-Cary, a free black woman, abolitionist, feminist, and publisher.
Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1823, Mary Ann Shadd was a teacher, journalist, and outspoken leader of the Canadian emigration movement during the 1850s. Shadd grew up in an abolitionist household. She was the eldest child of Abraham Doras Shadd, a prosperous shoemaker and veteran of the War for American Independence, and Harriett Parnell Shadd. Like many northern elite free blacks, Shadd received a Quaker education. It was through her activist family, teaching and journalism that Shadd secured a pathway into antislavery politics, joining other disenchanted blacks who advocated voluntary relocation to places where slavery had been abolished. Western Canada, now southern Ontario, became a geographic focal point for many black nationalist emigrationists.
Settling in Canada was a symbolic gesture as well as a concrete effort to establish independent free black settlements. Shadd herself wrote of the hypocrisy of the United States, which had identified as a democracy, yet supported slavery. In Canada, part of the British monarchy, blacks would find political and economic freedom. One of the central goals of emigrationists was to establish independent black farming communities, free of white control. During her residence in Chatham, Ontario, Shadd struggled to keep her school afloat. She eventually abandoned teaching and turned to journalism, taking over the Provincial Freeman in Windsor, Ontario in 1853. As the primary editor of the Freeman, Shadd traveled throughout Ontario and parts of the United States in an effort to drum up subscriptions for the fledgling newspaper. In the process, she wrote essays about her travels, revealing her support for sex and race equality. After the Civil War and the death of her husband, Thomas Cary, Mary Shadd Cary returned to the United States, where she earned a law degree from Howard University. She died of stomach cancer in Washington, D.C. in 1893.
At the age of 60 she became only the second Black woman in the United States to earn a law degree behind Charlotte E. Ray, also a Howard University School of Law graduate. Shadd Cary, post-slavery, adopted women’s rights as one of her causes. In her later years she began working alongside Susan B. Anthony in the National Woman Suffrage Association, even testifying before the House of Representatives for women’s right to vote. Mary Ann Shadd Cary would eventually become the first Black woman to vote in a national election due to her efforts.
While Annie and Mary Ann were both both black women, their Canadian sojourns were very different. Though both ended up returning to the U.S., one fled north to escape brutality while the other went to Canada to fight against it.
“Rhodes provides a well-researched, balanced, clearly written assessment of the extraordinary life of this trailblazing African American feminist and reformer.” ―Choice
“In this book we see how a courageous and pugnacious journalist-activist fought arduously to attain freedom from male dominance and establish a model for future feminists.” ―Quill & Scroll
“Jane Rhodes’ wonderful biography of Mary Ann Shadd Cary… is an insightful and moving portrait of a determined and resourceful Black woman who put all she had into ending slavery and securing full human rights for her people.” ―Darlene Clark Hine
Mary Ann Shadd Cary was a courageous and outspoken 19th-century African American who used the press and public speaking to fight slavery and oppression in the United States and Canada. Her life provides a window on the free black experience, emergent black nationalisms, African Americans’ gender ideologies, and the formation of a black public sphere