Woman's activism echoes down through years Harford man will see ancestor honored at Women's Hall of Fame

July 11, 1998|By Jamie Smith | Jamie Smith,SUN STAFF

As far back as he can remember, Janmichael Shadd Graine knew he was related to a remarkable woman.

Born a free black in 19th-century America, she fought for female suffrage and civil rights, spoke across the continent, established and edited a newspaper and at 59 graduated from Howard University's law school.

For Graine, who lives in Harford County, Mary Ann Shadd Cary's accomplishments have been a source of pride. Of wonder. And -- when as a teen-ager he lost both parents -- of strength.

But beyond Graine's large extended family and scholars, not many may have heard of Cary, his great-great-great aunt.

Today, that will change.

Cary -- along with 20 others, including Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright -- will be inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, N.Y., part of the 150th anniversary celebration of the first Women's Rights Convention.

A century and a half ago, in Mary Ann Shadd Cary's America, women could not vote, attend most colleges or, if married, own property.

In Seneca Falls, July 19 and 20, 1848, female rights activists called for a change, ratifying a document -- the Declaration of Sentiments, modeled on the Declaration of Independence -- that demanded equal rights for women.

Next week, women leaders from across the nation will gather in Seneca Falls for seminars, entertainment, re-enactments of the convention and a speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The celebration will be a time to reflect on the past and look to the future of women's rights, said Frances Barbieri, associate director of the Seneca Falls Historical Society. For many, the past starts at the 1848 convention, considered the birth of the women's rights movement.

"They declared, 'All men and women are created equal,' and that was quite a radical statement," said Barbieri.

While no record exists to tell whether Cary was at the convention -- she would have been 24 -- Graine knows she held the same beliefs about inalienable rights.

And as he stands today in Seneca Falls with several dozen other Cary family descendants for her induction, he will feel that much closer to the woman whose spirit helped hold him up through 40 years.

"Even though she died 105 years ago, it's like resurrecting her," Graine said.

Her name may be unfamiliar to many today, but Cary has always attracted admirers. Visitors to the Buxton Historic Site and Museum, in a small Canadian town near which Cary lived for several years, learn about her life and influence.

The Mary Shadd Public School in Toronto is named after her, its motto, "Free to Be," in tribute to her spirit. She is immortalized in encyclopedias of important women and in "Shadd," her biography.

Graine, who knows most of Cary's history by heart, has used her life as a model for his own: Help others. Do the right thing. Never give up.

He was always an achiever, with scrapbooks full of awards and newspaper clippings to prove it. And then his parents died -- his mother of an internal hemorrhage when he was 13 and his father in a car accident three years later.

But Graine still had his extended family -- and Cary. "It particularly took meaning after my folks had passed," he said. "It was part of them, with me."

His role model knew sorrow, too. She married barber Thomas Cary in 1856; four years later, he was dead. At age 37, she was a widow and mother of two young children, family members said.

"And still went on to do the things she did," Graine said. "It's kind of remarkable. I strive to do my best because I know what my family has done."

Born Mary Ann Shadd in 1823, she learned early to detest the constraints put on women and African-Americans. Free herself, she learned firsthand of the indignities of slavery because of her father's involvement in the Underground Railroad.

After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 put even free blacks' liberty at risk, Cary moved with her family from Pennsylvania to Ontario, Canada. There, she opened a school and taught African-American refugees to read and write.

Already well-known as a leader of the black emigration movement to Canada, in 1853 she became the first African-American woman in North America to establish and edit a newspaper. The weekly Provincial Freeman, published in Toronto, advocated abolition, temperance and women's rights.

In 1863, dismayed that the Union troops seemed to be losing the Civil War, Cary returned to the United States and recruited African-Americans for the cause.

At various times during her life, she lectured throughout Canada and the northern United States against slavery, published editorials supporting integration and wrote to the House of Representatives, claiming a right to vote.

According to the "Encyclopedia of Feminism," she gave a "stirring" speech at the 1878 National Woman Suffrage Association convention.

At 46 -- again making history -- she became the first female law student at Howard University, her biography notes. She completed the course of study quickly but was 59 when finally permitted to graduate.

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