Douglass Day featuring Mary Ann Shadd Cary – a Co-Lab challenge

Born around 1818 as an enslaved person, Frederick Douglass became a leader in the abolitionist movement in the United States. A prolific writer and a masterful speaker who captivated audiences throughout the U.S. and Great Britain, Frederick Douglass contributed to the rise of antislavery sentiment. He is widely considered the most influential civil and human rights advocate of the 19th century.

Like many enslaved people, Douglass never knew his birthdate. He chose to celebrate every year on February 14. In recognition of his birthday and to honour his legacy, Douglass Day is an annual celebration that highlights resources for learning about Black history and makes them more available. Douglass Day focusses frequently on important Black women’s archives. In 2023, the day will highlight the archives of Mary Ann Shadd Cary, a teacher, journalist, lawyer and activist who worked on both sides of the border, and made history when she became the first Black woman in North America to start and publish a newspaper.

A black-and-white photograph of a Black woman looking towards the camera.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (c029977)

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born free in the slave state of Delaware in 1823. Her parents, Abraham and Harriet Parnell Shadd, were abolitionists, and their home was a station on the Underground Railroad. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled Americans to assist in the capture of runaway slaves and levied heavy penalties on those who did not comply. Shadd Cary and her family moved to Canada West (known today as Ontario) in 1851, where she opened a school in Windsor catering to the area’s growing fugitive slave population.

Following her move to Windsor, Shadd Cary gained prominence as an important figure and influential leader within several antislavery societies. In 1853, Shadd Cary was actively involved in founding the weekly newspaper The Provincial Freeman, in which she published content that advocated for equality, integration, and self-education of Black people in Canada and the United States, and promoted emigration to Canada. Shadd Cary continued in her role as a schoolteacher in Chatham, Ontario, and in 1862 became a naturalized citizen of Canada West during the first years of the American Civil War, but returned to the United States thereafter.

A two-tone legal-sized document with print and handwritten text.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s naturalization certificate (e000000725)

Having later moved to Washington, D.C., Mary Ann Shadd Cary pursued law at Howard University, where she reached another historic milestone in 1883 by becoming the second Black woman in the United States to earn a law degree. During this time, she continued to participate in both civil and equal rights movements in the United States, returning to Canada only briefly, to organize a suffragist rally in 1881.

A document with handwritten and text portions, with a crest along with the letter “A” and the number “128” at the top.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s passport (e011536884-004)

LAC received the collection of original material relating to Mary Ann Shadd Cary in 1960 and 1964 from her granddaughter Muriel E. Thompson. This donation included correspondence between Shadd Cary’s family members, her naturalization certificate for Canada West, her passport for the Province of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec), as well as portions of an edition of The Pioneer Press, published in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Most significantly, however, this donation included the only known photograph of Mary Ann Shadd Cary.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s archives are found not only at Library and Archives Canada, but also at the Archives of Ontario and Howard University in Washington. This year, Douglass Day will feature virtual and local events to help transcribe, read and teach the papers of Mary Ann Shadd Cary held at LAC and the Archives of Ontario. At the centre of the celebration will be a crowdsourcing transcription project called a transcribe-a-thon. During this event, thousands of participants will transcribe the digitized collections. Once their work is complete, this fascinating and important material will be accessible to researchers around the world.

We invite you to use our Co-Lab tool to transcribe, tag, translate and describe the digitized records that are part of this challenge. You can also make contributions to any image through our Collection Search tool.