The Provincial Freeman

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The Provincial Freeman

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was an abolitionist's daughter whose family home in Delaware was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Cary became an educator, a newspaper publisher, a public speaker, and the nation's second black woman lawyer. All of this was accomplished despite the racism of white men and the sexism of black men.


Mary Ann Shadd (later Shadd-Cary) was a pioneer journalist and activist. She grew up as a member of a free family in Delaware. An abolitionist's daughter whose family home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, Shadd fought against both racism from whites and sexism from black men. She strove to define herself and be herself, regardless of the consequences from friend or foe. In her book, Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century, Jane Rhodes explains Mary Ann Shadd's political persuasion:

During the three years since Mary Ann Shadd's arrival in Canada West, she had cultivated a Black nationalist ideology that was dependent on an identification with a nation-state—in this case British North America. Traditionally, the ideological basis of nationalism has its roots in a people's ties to a geographical region which they feel entitled to possess. Black nationalism, as it evolved in the nineteenth century, was less connected to a particular nation-state than to the unifying ties of skin color and culture. Shadd's nationalism blended these two impulses: Blacks could not hope to possess and control Canada, but could claim their rightful place within a nation-state that promised them equality and citizenship. At the same time, she believed that the political, social, and cultural unification of Black people were essential to their survival. Shadd shared Martin Delany's advocacy of an autonomous Black political force that could fight white supremacy from beyond the borders of the United States. But she was fundamentally at odds with Delany's romance with Africa as the 'Fatherland,' and his assertions of Black hegemony. (Rhodes 1998, p. 87)

SOURCE: Rhodes, Jane. Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Cary's newspaper, The Provincial Freeman, began publishing in Toronto, Canada, in 1853. The paper, which lasted for four years, was the voice for many free blacks who, in the face of a U.S. crackdown, were promoting emigration to Canada. They were spurred into action by the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed blacks who escaped slavery (as well as those free blacks mistaken to be former slaves) to be captured and brought back to the South against their will. Everyone with black skin was at risk. Cary 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, where you will be allowed to enjoy the rights and perform the duties as you bear the stamp and impress of manhood" (quoted in Streitmatter 1994, p. 30).

Cary gave lectures and worked to secure subscriptions. She had become a leader in the emigration movement, with the professional goal of persuading blacks to see Canada as a new home free of racial oppression. Her personal goal was to create a "black public sphere," which included a public space of her own, to argue issues (Rhodes 1998, p. 221).

As Rodger Streitmatter observes, The Freeman promoted self-reliance only slightly less than emigration. The paper's motto was "Self-Reliance is the True Road to Independence." Cary "vehemently opposed organizations that made decisions for the fugitives, insisting that newly freed blacks had to demonstrate their self-sufficiency" (Streitmatter 1994, p. 30) Jane Rhodes, Cary's biographer, places her in a nationalist tradition, but one stressing black autonomy rather than "masculinist, Afrocentric ideologies" (1998, p. xii). The fight for gender equality was also well represented in The Freeman, with Cary creating and writing a "Woman's Rights" column for the paper.

Obscuring Cary's fight was the fact that her paper had to be created with two "shadow" black male editors, the well-known race leaders Rev. Alexander McArthur and Samuel Ringgold Ward, on the masthead. Cary, who disguised her gender and role by listing herself as "publishing agent" with just her first two initials, a longtime publishing practice that some women continue to use, wrote the articles and distributed the paper. When, in 1854, she finally dropped the men's names from the masthead, revealed herself, and hired her sister, Amelia, to help edit The Freeman, the public outrage was so great she had to resign the following year, but not until she made this parting shot on June 30, 1855: "To Colored women, we have a word—we have 'broken the Editorial ice,' whether willingly or not, for your class in America; so go to Editing, as many of you as are willing, and as soon as you may, if you think you are ready" (as quoted in Streitmatter 1994, p. 32). The paper ceased publication in 1857.

Rhodes writes that early in Cary's life she was "determined to have some control over the public representations of her concepts, ideas and feelings. She understood the intersection between public discourse and political and social action, and waged a constant battle to be heard" (1998, p. xiii). Cary proved such a battle could be won.


Rhodes, Jane. Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Streitmatter, Rodger. Raising Her Voice: African American Women Journalists Who Changed History. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.

                                Todd Steven Burroughs

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The Provincial Freeman

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