Born to free parents in Wilmington, Delaware, Mary Ann Shadd was the eldest of 13 children. She was educated by Quakers and later taught throughout the northeastern states. Following in the footsteps of her activist parents, who were part of the Underground Railroad, Shadd pursued the path taken by those heading north to freedom in Canada. Settling in Windsor, she wrote educational booklets outlining the advantages of Canada for settlers willing to work and the need for living within one’s means. She set up an integrated school in Windsor that was open to all who could afford to attend (education was not publicly provided at that time). She moved to St. Catharines and then Toronto, where she met and married widower Thomas Cary.
To promote information about the successes of Black people living in freedom in Canada, she began the Provincial Freeman newspaper, becoming the first Black woman in North America to publish a newspaper, although at first she had to have a man stand in for her as the apparent publisher.
Prior to returning to the US, Shadd obtained Canadian citizenship. In 1851, she was the only woman to attend the First Convention of Colored Freemen held outside of the US. Then she worked as a recruitment agent to support the Union side during the American Civil War. Shadd moved to Washington, DC, where she taught, then pursued law studies and became the first Black woman to complete this degree at Howard University. She joined efforts to gain women’s suffrage (the vote) and was herself the first Black woman to vote in a national election.