MARY ANN SHADD CARY’S HERSTORY IN THE COLORED CONVENTIONS
Mary Ann Shadd Cary embodies the efforts of early African American activists and political organizers to rear the next generation of freedom fighters, as her biographer Jane Rhodes contends in her first chapter entitled, “The Making of an Activist” . Here we look more closely and particularly at Shadd Cary’s early life experiences, as it prepared her to become a Colored Conventions delegate; a role of her own calling that pushed against the norms and expectations about her “proper place” in the movement. Her family forms a leading cast of professionals and activists who played pivotal roles in supporting her work, but their differences from her also reveal the gendered and economic barriers Shadd Cary faced everywhere she went.
In 1824, Abraham Doras Shadd, Mary Ann’s father, encountered an anti-black organization making its home in Delaware just a year after his daughter’s birth. The Union Colonization Society of Wilmington must have deeply angered and scared Abraham Shadd as it seduced his white abolitionist neighbors and colleagues toward anti-black ideologies. Purporting that African Americans, free and enslaved alike, were a threat to whites’ economic well-being, colonization societies proliferated across upper southern states with its “philanthropic” solution of exporting all Black peoples of the state to colonies abroad. In 1827, when the Delaware General Assembly adopted a petition by the Union Colonization Society, it must have become perfectly clear to Abraham Shadd that he would need to enter into direct, oppositional action against the group.  With so few enslaved African Americans in Delaware, it was clear that free Blacks like himself were the true target of their organizing. The petition’s paternalism and anti-black claims about the incompatibility of free Blacks and white society and governance was a clear threat to the multi-generational effort by Abraham Shadd and his ancestors to establish themselves as economic and social equals with their white neighbors, despite the educational barriers that persisted for him and his children. Abraham Shadd’s anti-colonization stance inspired Mary Ann’s high scrutiny of emigration schemes to Mexico, Liberia, Haiti, and Canada, with the latter meeting her political and ecological criteria for Black resettlement.
Three years later, Abraham Shadd served as a delegate representing Delaware at the inaugural National Colored Convention at Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia, PA on September 20th, 1830, presided by convention president Reverend Richard Allen, the church’s founder and fellow Delawarean. The convention was called in response to the violent expulsion of free Black peoples out of Ohio following an 1829 race riot, perhaps an omen of what might be to come for Abraham Shadd and his family. For more information on the first colored conventions view our exhibit called The Meeting that Launched a Movement.
The delegates lambasted colonization societies while also laying claim to their claim to the tenets of the Declaration of Independence, noting the contradiction between the founding documents’ articulation of their rights and the belief and actions perpetrated by these state-sanctioned organizations. Remarkably, the delegates repeatedly commit to forming a Black resettlement in Upper Canada as its strongest action against their continued oppression on American soil. The convention’s proximity to Shadd’s home suggests other delegates likely visited his home during the intersessions, where it is likely that Mary Ann began to consider and adopt the pro-emigration ideas she later fiercely advocated for as an adult.
The following year Abraham Shadd was elected vice president of the national convention, and together with the other delegates they enacted a marked shift in the convention’s focus. The proceedings outlined initiatives for advancing educational and labor reform for African Americans, claiming that their approaches best served the need to improve the poor conditions Black people live in while also stamping out the most corrupt and unchristian practices by racists. Colonization appears only once, only mentioned so as to denounce it as slavery by another name. The September 24th, 1831 issue of The Liberator best records Abraham’s move to denounce colonization by advocating for African Americans to embrace their ties to the land. In response to the Wilmington Colonization Union’s recruitment efforts, Abraham and his colleagues Reverend Peter Spence and William Thomas held a meeting at the African Union Church where they addressed Black Delawareans. For Shadd, colonization in Liberia held no opportunities for the improvement of their living conditions or educational goals. Rather, it was an evangelizing project in Africa that held no real relationship to African Americans, and an insidious way to lure African Americans away from the fight for their freedom and equality in America.
Abraham Shadd was again a delegate in the next three national conventions, and was elected president of the 1833 National Colored Convention held in Philadelphia. The proceedings for these conventions suggest that Shadd’s attitudes profoundly shaped growing attention towards American-based initiatives, and away from Canadian resettlement projects. The 1834 convention reveals that at the same time that Shadd commits to a wider America-based agenda, convention leadership becomes more competitive and centrally located in New York. Leadership emerging from this convention include Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet, who later work with and against Mary Ann Shadd from the opposite position of her father, as a staunch emigrationist.
Abraham Shadd goes on to attend the 1841 Pennsylvania State Convention of Colored Freemen in Pittsburgh , the 1843 Mid-Atlantic Regional Temperance Convention of Colored Citizens in New Jersey , and the 1848 Pennsylvania State Convention in Harrisburg . During this time Mary Ann has graduated from school and begun her lifelong career as a teacher at Black schools, encountering the educational and economic struggles of Black peoples across Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey during her tenure teaching in those states.
“The peculiar situation of a large portion of the free people of colour of this country, has not escaped the observation of your Committee, and the most rigid scrutiny has led to the conclusion, that there is not now, and probably never will be actual necessity for a large emigration of the present race of free coloured people, they therefore refrain from recommending any emigration”
Bearing witness to almost twenty years of her father’s work in the Colored Conventions movement by this time, Mary Ann offers a strong critique in her letter to Frederick Douglass published in his newspaper, The North Star, quoted below. Perhaps this marks an early indication of Mary Ann positioning herself as an insider tapped into the movement’s lines of power, yet also occupying a place at the margin from which she critiques convention norms.
“Wilmington, Jan. 25, 1849,” The North Star. March 23, 1849. Courtesy of Accessible Archives.
“We have been holding conventions for years – have been assembling together and whining over our difficulties and afflictions, passing resolutions on resolutions to any extent; but it does really seem that we have made but little progress, considering our resolves. We have put forth few practical efforts to an end. I, as one of the people, see no need for our distinctive meetings, if we do not do something. We should do more, and talk less.”
 Jane Rhodes. Mary Ann Shadd Cary: the Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998, p. 1.
 Jane Rhodes. Mary Ann Shadd Cary: the Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998, p. 9.
 American Society of Free Persons of Colour (1830 : Philadelphia, PA), “Constitution of the American Society of Free Persons of Colour, for improving their condition in the United States; for purchasing lands; and for the establishment of a settlement in upper Canada, also, The Proceedings of the Convention with their Address to Free Persons of Colour in the United States,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/70. Accessed 23 Jan. 2023.
 Convention of the People of Color, First Annual (1831 : Philadelphia, PA), “Minutes and Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of the People of Colour, held by adjournments in the city of Philadelphia, from the sixth to the eleventh of June, inclusive, 1831.,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/72. Accessed 23 Jan. 2023.
 Shadd, Abraham, et al. “Address, Of the free people of color of the Borough of Wilmington, Delaware.” The Liberator, Sept 24, 1831, p. 1. Accessible Archives, https://www-accessible-com.udel.idm.oclc.org/accessible/docButton?AAWhat=builtPage&AAWhere=THELIBERATOR.LI1831092402.01570&AABeanName=toc3&AANextPage=/printBrowseBuiltPage.jsp. Accessed 23 Jan. 2023.
 Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Color, Third Annual (1833 : Philadelphia, PA), “Minutes and Proceedings of the Third Annual Convention, for the Improvement of the Free People of Colour in these United States, :held by adjournments in the city of Philadelphia, from the 3d to the 13th of June inclusive, 1833.,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records,https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/275. Accessed 23 Jan. 2023.
 Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Color, Fourth Annual (1834 : New York, NY), “Minutes of the Fourth Annual Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Colour, in the United States; held by adjournments in the Asbury Church, New York, from the 2nd to the 12th of June, inclusive, 1834.,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/276. Accessed 23 Jan. 2023.
 State Convention of the Colored Freemen of Pennsylvania (1841 : Pittsburgh, PA), “Proceedings of the State Convention of the Colored Freemen of Pennsylvania, Held in Pittsburgh, on the 23d, 24th and 25th of August, 1841, for the Purpose of Considering their Condition, and the Means of Its Improvement. (Copy 2),” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/240. Accessed 23 Jan. 2023.
 Union Temperance Convention of the Colored Citizens., “Minutes of the Union Temperance Convention of the Colored Citizens : of Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and the District of Columbia.,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records,https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/610. Accessed 23 Jan. 2023.
 State Convention of Colored Citizens of Pennsylvania (1848 : Harrisburg, PA), “Minutes of the State Convention of Colored Citizens of Pennsylvania, Convened at Harrisburg, December 13-14, 1848.,” Colored Conventions Project Digital Records, https://omeka.coloredconventions.org/items/show/241. Accessed 23 Jan. 2023.