WILMINGTON — Markers and monuments honoring Delaware’s rich history can be found statewide, and in Peter Spencer Plaza, a new sign details the importance of some hidden figures.
On Feb. 2, the Delaware Public Archives unveiled a historical marker about the family of Abraham Shadd, an early-19th-century Wilmington cobbler known for his work on emancipation.
According to the state archives and the National Park Service, Mr. Shadd and his wife, Harriet, were born free African Americans, as were their 13 children. And their passion to make a social and political impact on the abolitionist movement branched out through their family tree.
The eldest of the children was Mary Ann Shadd, born in 1823. Mary Ann, who would later become Mary Ann Shadd Cary, worked as a teacher, lawyer and journalist, and followed in the footsteps of her kin, becoming a pivotal figure in abolitionism and women’s suffrage in the 19th century.
In the aid of freedom seekers, Mr. Shadd was a member of many anti-slavery organizations, including a stint as president of the National Convention for the Improvement of Free People of Color. He also wrote for the Liberator newspaper, run by fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
The Shadd family became central individuals within these movements, leading Mr. Shadd and Ms. Cary to become prominent speakers at conventions advocating for emancipation.
Fast-forward to 2012, when student leaders at the University of Delaware launched the Colored Conventions Project, a research initiative that mirrors the original Colored Conventions Movement in the 19th century. Undergraduate and graduate students look to discover, transcribe and archive unknown stories of prominent African American leaders throughout history, and those narratives are used to develop exhibits.
For Brandi Locke, a Colored Conventions Project fellow, African American Public Humanities Initiative fellow and UD graduate student, Ms. Cary’s ambition is a major source of inspiration.
“I was stunned to see how ambitious and unapologetic she was about her stances and opinions, even when folks were willing to challenge her and defame her character,” said Ms. Locke. “She brought a level of immense attention and awareness, while being so politically astute. I found that to be so compelling.”
Ms. Locke spoke at the virtual “Mary Ann Shadd Cary in the Here and Now” symposium in October, highlighting the advocate’s political efforts. Ms. Cary’s upbringing played a large factor in her later work, the grad student said.
“She’s in all of these spaces, seeing some of the most formidable activists and speakers in the country. She sees her father taking all of this political action around the region, and her career really begins for her as a girl in Wilmington seeing her father participate and learning from him,” she said.
Like father, like daughter
While living in Wilmington, the Shadd family provided freedom seekers a place to stay, as Mr. Shadd owned various properties there, as well as in nearby West Chester, Pennsylvania, where the family relocated in 1832.
Upon arriving in Pennsylvania, Ms. Cary began attending Price’s Boarding School, founded by Quakers, and became influenced by her Quaker teacher, Phoebe Darlington.
According to Delaware Humanities speaker and journalist Lora Englehart, Ms. Cary’s early home life played a huge role in influencing her career.
“I think Mary Ann was so forceful and not afraid to do anything because she had her father’s urging to stand up on your own two feet and be resilient,” she said. “It also helped being around Quakers, who don’t make the distinction between the leadership abilities of men and women. Phoebe Darlington’s influence on Mary Ann cannot be overlooked.”
With her father’s support, combined with the Quaker culture that values the education and leadership skills of women, Ms. Cary began an illustrious career.
After attending the school for six years and completing her education in 1939, she returned to Wilmington to teach African Americans who were not as fortunate as she, eventually educating in Pennsylvania and New York, as well, for the next 12 years.
In 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act made it legal for freedom seekers to be sent back to their slave state should they be caught. The law also punished those, like the Shadd family members, who aided those escaping slavery.
When the law was enacted, Ms. Cary and her brother, Isaac, decided to emigrate to Canada, hoping to capitalize on opportunities that country provided. They traveled with other groups of African Americans who sought the same.
After arriving in Ontario, Ms. Cary published a pamphlet titled, “Notes on Canada West,” outlining the harm that the Fugitive Slave Act brought and the benefits Canada could provide to African Americans. The pamphlet circulated widely through North America.
It was in Windsor, Ontario, after the success of “Notes on Canada West,” where she would further make her impact. In 1853, Ms. Cary became the first Black woman to own and edit a newspaper in North America with her launch of the anti-slavery Provincial Freeman, a weekly publication that encouraged readers to join the abolitionist movement and empowered North American Blacks. Like “Notes on Canada West,” it urged African Americans to move to Canada.
Ms. Cary’s move to Canada and subsequent launch of the Provincial Freeman helped her separate herself from other abolitionists in hopes to enact her vision, part of which was boosting fundraising to support Black settlements in Canada. Unlike the United States, Canada provided formerly enslaved and free African Americans full rights as Canadian citizens, including property rights and the ability to reach leadership roles in their regions.
“When you look at her ambitions in Canada, you really see her gift and her strength,” said Ms. Locke. “She was an amazing writer and speaker, and she knew from a young age that she could have a large impact on people. She could sway and entice people into sharing her stance to accomplish some major things.”
The newspaper became a medium for Ms. Cary to garner major support. She began covering conventions across Canada that were similar to the those in America.
This coverage allowed her to use Canada as leverage and a space to shape politics in America, using the Provincial Freeman to influence not just the convention movement but all civil rights work.
While in Canada in 1856, the journalist married Thomas J. Cary, a Toronto-area barber who assisted with publishing. The couple had two children before his death in 1860, though little more is known of the marriage.
A year after Mr. Cary’s death, the Civil War began in the United States, resulting in Ms. Cary’s return to the country. She assumed a role as a recruitment officer for the Union Army, furthering her efforts to abolish slavery.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, Ms. Cary once again relocated, this time to Washington, D.C., where she enrolled in the first class at Howard University Law School. She continued to teach and lecture, plus began writing for a local African American newspaper, The New National Era.
Supporter of suffrage for all
In her later years, Ms. Cary became an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage, but much like her earlier work, she went about it her own unique way. She learned that the suffrage movement provided useful methods of articulating women’s rights, so this provided her an opportunity to take that structure and advocate for suffrage that acknowledged African American women the same way it did White women.
Ms. Cary became a member of the National Woman Suffrage Association and spoke at the organization’s 1878 convention, even though NWSA did not support Black women in their suffrage efforts. Instead, Ms. Cary used her experience with the group to spread her message to an even wider audience.
Up until her death in 1893, Ms. Cary continued to advocate for the same causes. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame of Delaware Women in 1997, as well as the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998.
Ms. Englehart, who nominated Ms. Cary for both halls, said her relentlessness and ambition, starting from her days in Wilmington, are crucial factors in both local and Black history.
“We can’t leave out a whole segment of the story of Wilmington, and that’s why recognizing Mary Ann and her life is so pivotal. There is so much Black history in Wilmington that tends to get looked over,” Ms. Englehart said. “Her story is inspiring. She just kept going and going. She never retired; she went from one important cause to another. She didn’t stop. She just kept going.”
Aside from the historical marker at Peter Spencer Plaza, in February 2021, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, along with Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, all D-Del., sponsored a bill that renamed a Wilmington post office the “Mary Ann Shadd Cary Post Office.”
The ability to recognize the importance of Black history stretches beyond the city of Wilmington, according to living members of the Shadd family.
“The Shadd family belongs to the legacy of all the citizens of Wilmington, Delaware. I am grateful to be one of the many family stakeholders in this Shadd legacy of greatness and service to humanity. As well, I am thankful to the city of Wilmington for birthing and nurturing Shadd history that will benefit not only its citizens but people far beyond its city limits,” said the Rev. Dr. Angela Shadd Kittrell, great-great-great-great-granddaughter of Mr. Shadd.
Descendants of the Shadd family are spread across North America, and like the Rev. Kittrell, many attended the unveiling of the marker earlier this month, including Mr. Shadd’s great-great-great-grandson Janmichael Shadd Graine and great-great-great-great-grandsons Dr. Bruce Purnell and U.S. Marine Corps Col. Lee Jones, among others.
“I think it’s outstanding. Far too often, we focus on the same individuals over and over when it comes to Black history and achievements. Although their contributions were great, there are so many other people who also deserve recognition,” said Col. Jones. “The Shadd family played a huge role, fighting for civil rights, women’s rights, voting rights, etc. It is heartwarming to see Delaware recognize the contributions of their hometown heroes.”