Breaking the Ice: The Story of Mary Ann Shadd

By Rhodes, Jane | The Journal of Negro Education, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Breaking the Ice: The Story of Mary Ann Shadd


Rhodes, Jane, The Journal of Negro Education


Breaking The Ice: The Story of Mary Ann Shadd, directed by Sylvia Sweeney; produced by Peter Raymont, Lindalee Tracey, and Maria Pimentel. Distributed by First Run/Icarus Films, 1999. 23 minutes, color. $225, video

Reviewed by Jane Rhodes, Ethnic Studies, University of California-San Diego.

This short documentary, made by Canadian filmmaker Sylvia Sweeney, tells the story of Mary Ann Shadd Cary the first African American woman to publish a newspaper in North America and a colorful figure in 191 century African Canadian history. The film is part of a series on unknown Canadian immigrants called "A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada" funded by several Canadian media agencies. This fact bears keeping in mind as one considers the content of the video.

Shadd Cary (1823-1893) was born in Delaware to a family of prominent freeborn abolitionists. She was educated by Quakers and taught Black children across the northeastern United States before crossing the border into Canada in 1851 as part of the growing Black emigrationist movement. She set up a school for the children of fugitive slaves and became an influential figure in the communities established by expatriated African Americans. In March 1854 she began publishing the Provincial Freeman, which became the main voice for Canada's Black communities and a forum for debate over abolitionist strategies. Eventually, much of Shadd Cary's immediate family joined her in Canada, and her father Abraham Shadd became one of that nation's first Black elected officials. In an era in which free Black Americans were haunted by the Fugitive Slave Act, barred from attending school, and limited to the most menial jobs, life in Canada offered the promise of freedom and opportunity. Mary Ann Shadd Cary, however, left Canada after the outbreak of the Civil War, and resettled in Washington, D.C. during Reconstruction.

This documentary focuses on the 10-year period when Shadd Cary lived in Canada, and it uses her life to illustrate the experiences of African Canadians in the 1850s. Translating this story onto film is a difficult task as there are few photographs to illustrate the narrative, and limited documentary sources. Thus, this filmmaker resorts to historical reenactment to create some visual impact. Actors portray Shadd Cary and her associates, while a narrator tells the story. The film does a good job of explaining some of the issues confronting these Black communities established by missionaries and settled by former slaves. …

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