Celebrating Mary Ann Shadd, Canada's First Black Female Newspaper Publisher

October 8, 2021 | Bill V.

Comments (3)

You may have seen this mural of Mary Ann Shadd by local artist Adeyemi Adegbesan (also known as Yung Yemi) on Mackenzie House (the home of William Lyon Mackenzie). 

In his distinctive "Afrofuturist" style he's re-imagining a portrait of the American-born Shadd who worked and lived in Canada during the 1850s -60s.  Mary Ann Shadd was a person of many hats, a writer and publisher of the Provincial Freeman newspaper, anti-slavery abolitionist, temperance movement promoter, educator, promoter of Black self-sufficiency and integration advocate and also a lawyer.  It's hard to fathom how many glass ceilings she smashed in her time (and while raising two children!). If you would like to see online copies of The Provincial Freeman from the 1850s please see here at the Ontario Community Newspaper Portal.

Mary Ann Shadd mural on William Lyon Mackenzie House
Mary Ann Shadd mural on William Lyon Mackenzie House (photo by Bill V.)

It makes sense that Adeyemi Adegbesan's mural is on Mackenzie's house as he too was an important and early local Toronto/Ontario newspaper publisher.  One of the pleasures of this house museum is the 1840s era printing press and staff who know how to use it. And, just in case you're worried about the historical building, the mural itself is on vinyl. 

You can hear Adegbesan talk about the project in this YouTube video:


Mary Ann Shadd came to Canada in the 1850s in response to the American political situation and the unsafe conditions for Blacks in the USA.  She wrote a pamphlet, seen below in an original version, held in the Toronto Reference Library, where she encouraged Black Americans to emigrate to Canada rather than go to Africa, making the case Canada was healthier and better for them.   It's interesting to read her writings and glowing description of life in Upper Canada West in the 1850s and in particular her positive views of Toronto.  She was strongly integrationist and felt separate communities like Elgin or Buxton, while successful, did not serve their community members the best.  This put her at odds with many influential Abolitionists in Canada at the time.  You can read her pamphlet online as a PDF here. 


This is the last page from her pamphlet above that summarizes her positive views of Canada

Notes of Canada West by Mary Ann Shadd 1852 ... Recapitulation
Notes of Canada West by Mary Ann Shadd 1852 ... Recapitulation (photo by Bill V)


Mary Ann Shadd eventually moved to Upper Canada West (essentially Ontario) and was most influential in founding an Abolitionist and Temperance newspaper called the Provincial Freeman (making her North America's first Black female newspaper publisher).   See here for examples of the actual newspaper from an online resource. 

Here's the Prospectus from the cover page of a microfilm copy of the paper from the Toronto Reference Library (note M. A. Shadd Publishing Agent).

Prospectus of the Provincial Freeman
Prospectus of the Provincial Freeman (photo by Bill V.)


If you're interested in more information about Mary Ann Shadd then you'll enjoy these items.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century

Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century

"Mary Ann Shadd Cary was a courageous and outspoken 19th-century African American who used the press and public speaking to fight slavery and oppression in the United States and Canada. Her life provides a window on the free black experience, emergent black nationalisms, African Americans' gender ideologies, and the formation of a black public sphere." There is also a similar title you may be interested in with additional information on Shadd and placing her in context among other writers and newspapers of her era Against a Sharp White Background: Infrastructures of African American Print.


Shadd The Life and Times of Mary Shadd Cary

Shadd: The Life and Times of Mary Shadd Cary

From the back cover "Shadd was the first black woman on the North American continent to found and edit a weekly newspaper, publishing The Provincial Freeman in Windsor, Toronto and Chatham ... during the 1850s. An early and vigorous advocate of women's rights and abolition, she was one of the very first black women to lecture in public ... Mary spent a lifetime as an educator, founding several schools and serving as a teacher and principal in public schools.... She was almost certainly the only woman to be commissioned as a Recruiting Officer during the American Civil War. She was Howard University's first woman law student and one of the very few black women of the 19th century to practice law, beginning her career at the age of 60!"  


Women in the Promised Land Essays in African Canadian History

Women in the "Promised Land": Essays in African Canadian History

"Places African Canadian women's lived experiences, identities, and histories at the centre of Canada's past. This collection of original research edited by leading scholars in the field encourages readers to interrogate the idea of Canada as a "Promised Land" by examining the rich and varied history of African Canadian women. The nine chapters span the period from slavery and abolition through to late 20th-century activism. This interdisciplinary collection draws on existing research from cultural studies, literary studies, communications, and visual culture to reframe familiar figures in African Canadian women's history, such as feminist Mary Ann Shadd and civil rights activist Viola Desmond, in the wider African diaspora."


A Scattering of Seeds DVD on Mary Ann Shadd cover

A Scattering of Seeds Episode # 5 Breaking the Ice The Mary Ann Shadd Story (DVD)

"A dramatic recreation of the story of Mary Ann Shadd, an abolitionist, suffragete and integrationist. Living in Windsor, Ontario, she fought for integrated education, battled segregationists and started the first integrated school in Canada. She later became the first female newspaper editor and the first black female attorney in North America."


Children's Books

Mary Ann Shadd Publisher  Editor  Teacher  Lawyer  Suffragette

Mary Ann Shadd: Publisher, Editor, Teacher, Lawyer, Suffragette

From the back cover "Mary Ann Shadd encouraged Black people to become self-sufficient through her teaching, speaking and writing.  Her activities to assist Black people made a significant difference during a period of history (1850s-1890s) in both Canada and the United States that cried out for leadership."  You might also be interested in this title, which is not held by the Library, Demanding Justice A Story About Mary Ann Shadd Cary.


Women in Black History Stories of Courage  Faith  and Resilience

Women in Black History: Stories of Courage, Faith, and Resilience

"Within the pages of American history are the stories of remarkable African American women who have defied the odds, taken a stand for justice, and made incredible strides despite opposition from the culture around them. Now young readers can discover their exciting true stories in this eye-opening collection.  From well-known figures like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks to women rarely found in any history book (including Mary Ann Shadd!), Women in Black History explores the lives of writers, athletes, singers, activists, and educators who have made an indelible mark on our country and our culture. Perfect for kids, but also for adults who like to read about important figures and unsung heroes, this collection will delight, surprise, and challenge readers."  Although it doesn't include Mary Ann Shadd, readers may also be interested in this similar title for children Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History.


Online Resources


These are some other Toronto Public Library Blogs that may interest you about Black Canadians and Americans 


You may also be interested to know about our Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection. This collection features over 16,000 print and audiovisual materials for adults, children, and teens about the Black and Caribbean historical and cultural experience – with a special emphasis on Canadian content. The material covers history, social science, and the contributions and achievements of Blacks in Canada. The collection also includes a small selection of titles about world figures in Black history and culture.

Recognized as one of the most significant Black and Caribbean heritage collections in Canada, it is an invaluable resource for the Black and Caribbean community as well as students and researchers.

Formats available include:

  • Print: fiction and non-fiction, newspapers and periodicals
  • CDs
  • DVDs
  • Audiobooks
  • Large Print
  • Digitized content


The collection is available at four branches across the city: