Racially Integrated Education: The Antebellum Thought of Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Frederick Douglass

By Conaway, Carol B. | Vitae Scholasticae, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Racially Integrated Education: The Antebellum Thought of Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Frederick Douglass


Conaway, Carol B., Vitae Scholasticae


Approximately one hundred years before the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, two black activist-journalists, Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Frederick Douglass, published articles advocating racially integrated education. While they agreed that such schools constituted the ideal educational setting for black students, they disagreed on the type of education these students should acquire. Their differing ideas were shaped by the complex relationships of gender, race, and class in antebellum African American and Afro Canadian communities. Their views of these relationships are reflected in the curricula they proposed for racially integrated schools. This essay explores the contours and complexities of their lives and their thoughts on black education as revealed between 1852 and 1857 in their abolitionist newspapers, the Provincial Freeman and Frederick Douglass' Paper. (1)

Shadd Cary, editor of the Provincial Freeman (1854-1861), published her newspaper in what is now the province of Ontario, Canada. Douglass published his from 1851-1860 in Rochester, New York. The Provincial Freeman was the first newspaper Shadd Cary owned and edited, though many of her letters to the editor, as well as a small pamphlet, had been published in the newspapers of Douglass and other African Americans. Douglass had significant journalistic experience before founding the Frederick Douglass" Paper. From 1847 to 1851, he published a black abolitionist weekly called the North Star. Shadd Cary and Douglass well understood the power of the press in developing an awareness of the issues and in fostering debates and social progress for black people on both sides of the Canadian-American border.

Most black male and female activists spoke and wrote about the responsibility of their race to raise itself from poverty to prosperity and to move from slavery and its devastating consequences to middle-class status and its entitlements. Black community leaders stressed that education, strong moral values, honest labor, thrift, and so forth would change the myths that whites had about blacks' inferiority. Essentially, this meant the ascent from ignorance to literacy. Shadd Cary and Douglass were also strong advocates for the advancement of black people through self-help, which largely meant changing blacks' social and economic status through education. They agreed that racially integrated education would promote racial uplift, but why did they disagree on school curricula? The response to that question is apparent when their differing biographies are considered in conjunction with the sexism, racism, and classism that confronted both individuals.

The Formative Years of Shadd Cary

Mary Ann Camberton Shadd Cary (1823-1893) was an African American/Afro Canadian woman born into a multiple-race, middle class family in Wilmington, Delaware. The Shadds were staunch abolitionists, and their home was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Shadd Cary, despite her light skin color and class, was denied an education in Delaware because of her race and gender. Seeing no way to educate their eldest daughter in Delaware, the Shadds moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, when Shadd Cary was ten years old. At the time black children were not admitted to West Chester's eleven public schools, but Shadd Cary was given a private education for six years by Quakers at Miss Phoebe Darlington's school. (2) According to biographer and historian Jane Rhodes, she very likely received instruction in religion and philosophy, literature, writing, basic mathematics, Latin and French, the mechanical arts, and the values of the Society of Friends.(3) When her formal education ended, Shadd Cary left the Philadelphia area to teach in a school for black children in Delaware, and later taught in schools in black areas of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York City.

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