How North America’s first Black female publisher saw the ‘road to independence’

Mary Ann Shadd’s the “Provincial Freeman” provided African-Americans with vital information about Canada and the Underground Railroad. speaks with her descendants about her ideals, her advocacy, and her legacy
By Ashley Okwuosa - Published on Oct 09, 2020
A portrait of Mary Ann Shadd set against an issue of the “Provincial Freeman,” the weekly newspaper she published. (INK-ODW Newspaper Collection)



A year after Mary Ann Shadd left the United States and settled in Windsor, the educator, newspaper publisher, and abolitionist released her manifesto “A Plea for Emigration; or Notes of Canada West.” Written two years after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the document encouraged African-Americans who had been freed from or escaped slavery to migrate to Canada West, now part of present-day Ontario. It extolled the virtues of the region: fertile land and economic and educational opportunities equal to those in the United States — without the burden of discrimination.

“If a colored man understands his business, he receives the public patronage the same as a white man,” wrote Shadd. “He is not obliged to work a little better and at a lower rate — there is no degraded class to identify him with, therefore every man’s work stands or falls according to merit, not as in his color.”

A year later, in 1853, Shadd founded the Provincial Freeman, a weekly newspaper published in Windsor, Toronto, and later in Chatham, making her the first Black female publisher in North America. The publication operated as an extension of Shadd’s earlier writing. Its mission was the “elevation of colored people”; it covered such topics as anti-slavery and temperance.

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According to Shannon Prince, curator of the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum and a descendant of Shadd, the Provincial Freeman was part of a canon of publications — including the Voice of the Fugitive (Canada’s first Black newspaper) and the North Star, published by abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass — that provided information to Blacks during a pivotal moment in history, when many African-Americans were journeying to Canada via the Underground Railroad. “They were very important during those turbulent times with people trying to get information where they could,” she says.

The most important piece of information Shadd wanted to convey was that Canada was a viable option for Blacks looking to live freely without discrimination. The paper’s motto, “Self-Reliance Is the True Road to Independence” made her hopes for Blacks in the country clear.

“For Shadd, the transformation from slave life and the absence of human rights to freedom and full civic participation thus entailed more than emigration to Canada,” writes Winfried Siemerling, a professor of English at the University of Waterloo, in The Black Atlantic Reconsidered: Black Canadian Writing, Cultural History, and the Presence of the Past.

Her views sometimes set her in opposition to other prominent Black voices. Her criticism of the Refugee Home Society Program, advertised by fellow publisher Henry Bibb, led to the end of their longstanding friendship and is rumoured to have prompted her to start the Provincial Freeman so that she could have a venue to air her own opinions. Through the program, Bibb solicited funds to buy land to build settlements for freed slaves and to support their transition to Canada. Shadd, though, believed that the program misrepresented the conditions of Blacks in Canada — and that settlements specifically for Blacks were unnecessary in this country.      

“She thought that it could be considered self-segregation, “ says Siemerling. “And she fought during her time here for non-segregated schools and non-segregated churches because she says that’s something you might have needed in the U.S. to protect yourself  — but if you do that here in Canada, where, basically, she claimed there was no racism and where you had more rights, she thought [Blacks] would actually kind of curtail their own possibilities.”

Claudine Bonner, an associate professor of sociology at Acadia University, notes that, although they had different visions of how to achieve it, both Bibb and Shadd, ultimately, had the same goal — to support Blacks newly arriving in Canada. “They were both talking about how best to be citizens in this new place and what they need to succeed.”

Some say that Shadd’s outlook and expectations for Blacks coming to Canada were shaped by her own experience: she herself had never been enslaved, and her family had migrated to the country with wealth, which was not the case for many. “I love the story of Mary Ann Shadd, but she did come from more than what Blacks coming from the South and running had,” says Dorothy Wallace, board president of the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society and Black Mecca Museum. “When you have two or three steps up, and someone is down on the ground, how can they achieve what you already have when that is not their starting point?”

And, while Shadd wrote that Canada West offered a way of life free from discrimination, history indicates otherwise. In 1849, local businessmen and politicians voiced opposition to a plan, proposed by Revered William King, an Irish-born minister who owned slaves in the United States and came to Canada as a missionary, to establish a settlement 12 miles south of Chatham for freed Blacks. One member of the Raleigh Township Council argued that Blacks should be barred from public schools and public office, and post bonds if they wished to stay in Canada. (Despite the pushback, plans to build the community continued. By August 1852, Elgin was home to 400 settlers; it lives on today as a national historic site in Buxton.)

In 1850, amendments were introduced to authorize the creation of separate schools for Black students in Ontario. And the late 1800s and early 1900s saw legal attempts to limit or exclude the migration of people of colour: The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885, for example, imposed a duty of $50 on every Chinese person seeking entry into Canada. The Immigration Act of 1910 expanded the list of prohibited immigrants to include those “belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada, or of immigrants of any specified class, occupation or character.” 

Siemerling thinks Shadd was aware that anti-Black racism was rife in the province and around the country — and that her utopian claims were in service of a practical goal. “She was smart, so she must have seen racism around her,” she says. “My take was that it was strategic to provide very positive opinions on Canada West and what she was saying was that the more [Black] people emigrate up here, the more power [Black people] have, and the more they can influence the overall course of events.”

Adrienne Shadd, a descendant of Shadd, says that, in her later life, Shadd reported on incidents of racism in Canada in the Freeman. “She felt that, when Black people hit Canadian soil, the British tenets of equality before the law would all fall into place and things would be so much better off. And, as time went on, she discovered that this wasn’t true.”

Claims that Canadian society is relatively free of racial discrimination are still common today, says Natasha Henry, president of the Ontario Black History Society. “It’s part of our national narrative. It’s become part of this way that Canada tries to distinguish themselves from the United States, and perpetuate this idea of moral exceptionalism that we’re better than the U.S.”.

But, Henry says, the narrative will become a reality only if Canadians realize that the present and past are merely two sides of the same coin. “Canada has to recognize the historical patterns of anti-Black racism and of entrenched racial-ethnic inequities for Black people and for Indigenous people to see and understand what continues to take place today.”

After the shuttering of the newspaper in 1857 and the death of her husband, Thomas F. Cary, in 1860, Shadd returned south of the border; at age 60, she became the second Black woman in the United States to earn a law degree.      

Prince believes that Shadd would be disappointed with the state of Black relations in Canada today — and with the fact that her hopes for a country where Black people could live independently and without limitations have not yet been realized. “I think she would say, look at the wars we fought in order for us to survive and to continue the legacy, with the hope and the promise of prosperity. That you would have the freedom to have your voice,” Prince says. “And now it’s just coming back.”

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