Mary Ann Shadd Cary

An Exceptional Speech

At the national assembly of 1855, Mary Ann Shadd Cary delivered “the speech of the Convention.” But in the published proceedings, that speech was left out. 

Shadd’s presence at the convention was exceptional from the start. On the first day in Philadelphia, she had to sit, wait, and listen while a group of men debated whether to recognize a woman as a delegate for Canada. Isaiah C. Wears and other prominent Black leaders opposed recognizing her status, until support for Shadd prevailed. They could not prevent her from joining the convention and its debates.

Although the proceedings are silent on her speech, coverage in Black newspapers tells a much different story. The journalist William J. Wilson, writing under his pseudonym Ethiop in Frederick Douglass’s Paper, reported the events. Each delegate was allowed only ten minutes to speak before the convention. After Shadd spoke for ten minutes—on the highly unpopular cause of emigration—her peers voted to allow her an extra ten minutes. That recognition came from a group of men who vehemently disagreed with her politics.

“We may differ with her on the subject of emigration,” Wilson wrote, but “she is a superior woman; and it is useless to deny it…however much we may differ with her on the subject of emigration.” Whatever the other delegates had thought about Shadd before then, she promptly proceeded to give, in his admiring words, “one of the speeches of the Convention.”

Activist Roots and Travels

Although she had to fight for a place at the 1855 Convention, Shadd was born into a storied family of notable activists. Mary Ann was born as the first child of Abraham and Harriet Shadd on October 9, 1823. The family would eventually include 13 children that lived to adulthood. The Shadds were a prominent family in the Wilmington area, dating back to Mary’s grandmother, Amelia Cisco, who ran a tea parlor that existed at the center of social life for free Blacks and whites alike around the turn of the nineteenth century.

Mary Ann and the Shadds would move to West Chester, Pennsylvania, some time after so that the children could attend the Quaker school there. After finishing her formal education, Mary Ann Shadd became a teacher in Wilmington, West Chester, Trenton, and Norristown in New Jersey, and at the African Free School on Centre Street in New York City. Then, in 1851, Shadd decided to move to the province of Canada West after hearing a series of speeches about the opportunities there.

Mary Ann Shadd’s time in Canada West secured her place in history. She taught a school, became highly active in local politics, and became the first Black woman publisher and editor in North America by producing the Provincial Freeman from 1853 to 1859.  She married a man named Thomas Cary, a barber and businessman in Toronto, on January 3, 1856.

But the life story of Mary Ann Shadd cannot be told in isolation apart from the varied and rich historical contributions by more than a few of her siblings and her father Abraham’s key role in the Colored Conventions Movement. Abraham, born to Jeremiah Shadd and Amelia Cisco in 1801, would become the President of the 1833 Convention after having served as a delegate at each of the preceding national conventions.

The siblings of the Shadd family could make for an entire book-length study on their own. Brother Isaac Doras (1829-1896) followed his older sister Mary Ann to Chatham, Windsor and Toronto in Canada West. Isaac’s role in managing the daily business affairs of the Provincial Freeman would surely have been enough to secure his place in posterity.  Isaac’s house in Canada West served as the meeting place for the gatherings held in anticipation of the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Yet, after the Civil War Isaac was elected to the Mississippi State Legislature from 1871 to 1874. During that time, Isaac was also involved as a part owner of several experiments in Black-owned cotton plantations.

Several other siblings took after Mary Ann’s example as well. Amelia Cisco Shadd Williamson (1831-1897) followed her two older siblings to Canada West where she married a self-emancipated man named David T. Williamson who later contributed to the Provincial Freeman and ran a successful small business in Toronto.  Emeline Shadd (1835-1894) became one of the first women appointed the faculty of Education at Howard University. Much more work remains to be done to learn about the rest of the history of the illustrious Shadds, including siblings Elizabeth, Harriet, Joseph Lewis, Garrison, Sarah Matilda, Ada Theresa, and Gerrit S. Shadd.


Contributed by Jim Casey, graduate student at the University of Delaware. Researched for English 634, Spring 2013, taught by Professor P. Gabrielle Foreman.