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Mary Ann Shadd and Mary Bibb

by DG Graham | May 4, 1998

Mary Ann Shadd is credited with being the first Black woman to publish a newspaper solo. Part of the reason that she did this was to provide a forum for her views on anti-slavery, which weren’t, in her opinion, shared by other abolitionists. In particular, by her future sister-in-law, Mary Bibb, who, with her husband, was already publishing The Voice of the Fugitive. Their ideological disagreements resulted in each publishing accounts of the other’s “wrongdoing” in their newspapers. Ah, in-laws.

First, a little biographical background.

Mary Ann Shadd was the eldest of 13 children, born in Washington in 1823. Many Canadian Blacks from this time were born in the U.S. (where their ancestors and they had been “imported” as slaves) and fled to Canada to escape slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act (an act passed in 1850 which gave full legal support for the capture of slaves anywhere in the U.S.).

Mary Ann showed signs of independence and fire early on, inspired and encouraged by her father who worked to encourage free Blacks to improve themselves through education. He also operated a station on the Underground Railroad. Mary Ann began teaching in Black schools herself at age 16, and also began writing articles on how Blacks could improve their lives. She advocated for the right of Blacks to vote in articles published in North Star, an advocacy paper.

Mary Ann Shadd came to Canada in 1850, partly because Blacks were protected to a certain extent by Ontario’s anti-slavery legislation (in place since 1834), and partly because she wanted to assess Canada’s potential as a haven for people fleeing the U.S.

Mary Bibb, on the other hand, was the only child of relatively well-off free parents. She also was born in the States, in Rhode Island, in 1820. Because of inadequate records, less is known about her early life than Mary Ann’s, but she presumably received her education in Rhode Island and began teaching before she entered the Massachusetts State Normal School. The principal of the school was Reverend Samuel May, an anti-slavery activist and supporter of women’s rights who helped to “educate” Mary in the areas of freedom-fighting and emancipation.

Mary Bibb taught for several years in many different schools around the north-east (it was quite common for young teachers to move around a lot; they simply packed up and went wherever they were needed) and supported herself as an independent woman. She became a well-known abolitionist, and met her husband at an anti-slavery meeting. Henry Bibb was a lecturer and an escaped slave, and because of the above-mentioned Fugitive Slave Act (which also allowed the kidnapping and selling into slavery of “freed” slaves), the Bibbs were forced to flee the U.S. and come to Canada in 1850.

Once there, the Bibbs started publishing the Voice of the Fugitive, and Mary set up a school for Black children in Sandwich, Canada West (Ontario was then known as Canada West). It floundered, although Mary acted as manager, teacher and caretaker for no pay. So, she either started, or took over, an existing school (sources are uncertain on this point) in Windsor, Ontario, which was much more successful.

To understand what Black teachers like Mary Ann Shadd and Mary Bibb were facing, you should know a bit about how schools worked back in the mid-19th century, and how that system affected Blacks in particular.

In 1850, Canada West passed an act which gave “Coloured People” (along with Protestants and Catholics) the option to open their own schools. Not surprisingly, this was interpreted by whites as meaning that they were entitled to exclude Blacks from “their” schools. So they did. Blacks had no option but to set up their own schools yet, because of discrimination and because many had very recently arrived in Canada, they were generally poorer than whites, and thus could not afford to set up schools. The resulting quantity of education available to Blacks? Not much.

When legislation providing school funding was passed, it based the amount of the grant on the number of children who attended regularly. Because children of the poor were often required at home to help, their attendance was not regular, and so the grants were proportionally smaller. Also, the grant came from the rate bill and property taxes, and thus poor communities who either could not pay or paid little received proportionately smaller grants.

Are you getting the picture?

Black children were prevented from attending white schools, virtually necessitating the establishment of segregated schools, and what money they did receive fell far short of providing adequate salaries and supplies. What must the newly arrived American Blacks think of Canada? O brave new world, that has such people in it.

How did Black teachers handle this situation? Here’s where the conflict between Mary Ann Shadd and Mary Bibb comes in. They weren’t in-laws yet, but they had met through Mary and Henry Bibb’s newspaper, The Voice of the Fugitive. Mary Ann was encouraged by her future sister-in-law to go open a separate school in Windsor, where the need was greatest. According to some sources, Mary Bibb thought Mary Ann should just open a segregated school for Black children and not fuss too much about trying to integrate. These same sources say that Mary Ann disagreed; she thought integration was the priority, and resisted going along with racist policies. Other sources say that Mary Bibb wanted an integrated school just as much as Mary Ann, but that she thought even a segregated school was better than nothing, and that they should do what they could while they could.

But these ideological differences set up a conflict between the two women, which played out in each publishing criticisms of the other. Now, it’s difficult to determine how accurate this is, but one version of their battle goes like this:

Mary Ann Shadd, encouraged by the Bibbs, applied to the American Missionary Association (AMA) for a grant to pay her salary at her new school. She received an amount equivalent to half her salary, the rest was supposed to come from tuition from students. Apparently she was advised not to make her grant known, as some parents would refuse to pay if they knew she had received a grant. The Bibbs, however, published the fact that she had received a grant, and said that it was a full grant, thereby implying that Mary Ann was pocketing the tuition fees she collected from her students. Mary Ann cannot have been happy about this, whether it was true or not.

On their side, the Bibbs may have been provoked by Mary Ann’s research into the Refugee Home Society which was administered by the Bibbs. Mary Ann thought that the Bibbs were skimming profits off the top of the Refugee Home Society and were lining their own pockets instead of distributing donations to fugitives. She began writing to the AMA, alerting them of her belief in this misappropriation, and wrote articles to American anti-slavery newspapers outlining the situation. Needless to say, the Bibbs were not happy about this (whether it was true or untrue is unknown) but this unhappiness probably prompted the “exposure” of Mary Ann’s grant in the Voice of the Fugitive.

The result of this year-long battle was that the AMA suspended Mary Ann. The grant a year earlier had made her the only Black out of 263 missionary teachers supported by the Association, and now she was cast out. One reason why the AMA chose to oust Mary Ann rather than the Bibbs might be that the Bibbs were more influential than Mary Ann, and less trouble. Another reason might be that Mary Ann’s outspokenness and gender was making them uncomfortable. In any case, apparently the Bibbs continued publishing their attacks on Mary Ann, and Mary Ann, while continuing to teach without support, decided to fight fire with fire and publish her own newspaper.

By publishing the Provincial Freeman, Mary Ann Shadd became the first sole Black woman publisher. Through her editorials, she challenged not only the Bibbs’ views on segregation, but also the prevailing emigration views of abolitionists in Toronto. So influential was her opinion that an international debate about emigration followed. Although some researchers disagree on this, it has been suggested that their different views on emigration was the principle philosophical difference between Mary Bibb and Mary Ann Shadd.

Bibb saw Blacks as fugitives in exile from America, while Shadd saw them as new Canadians with no home left in America. Ironically, it was Bibb who lived out her life in Canada, and Shadd who returned to America for the last 25 years of her life.

Having, presumably, avoided “Tupperware parties” with the other for several years, Mary Ann and Marys’ paths crossed again. Mary Ann met and married Thomas Cary (or Carey) in 1853. His brother, Isaac Cary, met and married by-then widowed Mary Bibb around 1856. Now Mary Ann (Shadd) Cary and Mary (Bibb) Cary were sisters-in-law. Great.

But it seems that, by this point, they were too busy with their own lives to squabble much more; at least, there isn’t much record of any more lambasting. Maybe a lot of the bitterness had come from Henry Bibb, not Mary, and so, when he died, the acrimony died with him. Maybe Mary Ann thought that Blacks would be better served by fighting against oppression together instead of “exposing” possible malefactors in their own ranks.

In any case, Mary (Bibb) Cary continued teaching and opened another private (ie. no government funding) school in Windsor, which was, by all accounts, the most successful one she had attempted. Some research suggests that she eventually stopped teaching and opened a “fancy goods” establishment around 1861. Evidence of this business shows that it existed until at least 1871. In her essay on Mary Bibb (see resources, below), Afua P. Cooper posits that perhaps Mary was exhausted by teaching for 20 years, and by fighting “a racist society that kept shutting the doors of opportunity in the face of Black people.”

Mary Ann (Shadd) Cary had two children, the second of whom was born after her husband, Thomas Cary, died. Thereafter, she supported herself and her family by writing articles for other newspapers and by providing printing services to the City of Chatham. When she could afford the supplies, Mary Ann continued to publish the Provincial Freeman with the help of her brother-in-law, Isaac Cary. When the Proclamation of Emancipation was declared in the U.S. in 1863, she returned to the U.S. and got her teaching certificate and her law degree by attending night school at Howard University (although, because she was a woman, she had to wait three years after finishing her studies to graduate), making her the first woman to graduate from that law school.

Two very cool women, indeed!

resources for this story

  • Thursday, October 28, 1999, noon, Heritage Toronto, 205 Yonge Street, Toronto, ON: “Mary Ann Shadd: Fighting Inequities with Her Words” lecture by Rosemary Sadlier, President, Ontario Black History Society, author of several books, including Mary Ann Shadd: Publisher, Editor, Teacher, Lawyer and Suffragette
  • Leading the Way – Black Women in Canada, by ROSEMARY SADLIER, Umbrella Press, Toronto | 1994
  • We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History, by BRISTOW et al., University of Toronto Press, Toronto | 1994
    – “Black Woman Teacher Mary Bibb” by AFUA COOPER in We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up
  • Shadd, The Life and Times of Mary Shadd, by JIM BEARDEN and LINDA JEAN BUTLER, NC Press, Toronto | 1977
  • Her Story – Women from Canada’s Past, by SUSAN E. MERRITT, Vanwell Publishing Inc., St. Catharines ON, | 1993
  • “The Provincial Freeman: A new Source for the History of the Negro in Canada and the United States,” by ALEXANDER L. MURRAY, Journal of Negro History 44, no. 2, pgs. 123-135 | April, 1959
  • “Voice of a Fugitive, Henry Bibb and Antebellum Black Separatism,” by ROGER HITE, Journal of Black Studies 4, no.3, pgs. 269-282 | March 1974
  • “Records Illustrating the Condition of Refugees From Slavery in Upper Canada Before 1860,” by FRED LANDON, Journal of Negro History, 13, no. 2, pgs. 198-207 | April, 1928
  • The History of the Coloured Canadian in Windsor Ontario 1867-1967, by CHARLOTTE BRONTE PERRY, Summer Printing and Publishing Co., Windsor, Ontario | 1967

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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