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Two African American Female Journalists From History And What They Can Teach Us Now

It’s a well-known fact that the accomplishments of women throughout history have often been neglected, discredited, or stolen by men who dominated almost all professional institutions prior to the early twentieth century. Because of this, the names of those women who have made influential contributions to the intellectual world have been lost with time. However, the work of some women have been hidden beneath the surface for much longer than others.

African American women have long since experienced persecution on both gender and race fronts. This made it substantially more difficult for them to make names for themselves. Two women in particular made strides in the journalism industry, at times when the idea of women working was not socially accepted. Their works are still applicable today and contain valuable lessons not only about journalism but about pioneership. 

Mary Ann Shad Cary

Born in Delaware in the early nineteenth century, Shad Cary was lucky enough to be from one of the unenslaved African American families in the area, her freedom owed to her father’s boss. Her father was her main inspiration for journalism, as he worked for a newspaper that focused on the abolitionist movement. One of Shad Cary’s first steps as a young pioneer was to found a school, which she did after receiving an education for herself.

In fear of recent legislation allowing the capture of fugitive slaves, she and the rest of her family found asylum in Canada. Emboldened, and prepared to enter journalism, Shad Cary founded and was the editor her own newspaper. Titled the Provincial Freemen, the newspaper was written specifically for African Americans who were in need of a news source. Later, she founded another school in Canada

What Can She Teach Us?

Shad Cary’s extensive history of pioneership is laudable. She evidently valued education and innovation, as she used her limited resources to better her communities. Aspiring journalists who look to forge their own path should look to Shady Cary as a model of creativity and entrepreneurship.

To everyone else, she teaches the importance of education and literacy in a turbulent political climate. She maintained the belief that education is the key to both positive change and peaceful stability in a society. This is an important lesson for us all, especially in today’s uncertain world. 

Ida B. Wells 

Born in Mississippi in 1862, Wells was a slave.  Like Shad Cary, Wells understood the importance of education. However, her tenure in college was short, as she was expelled for starting “a dispute with the university president.” Her parents were soon after claimed as victims of yellow fever, leaving Wells to be the primary provider for her younger siblings. After moving to Memphis, Wells became a teacher, continuing her love for education. When she experienced the murder of a friend, Wells took it upon herself to look into cases about black men who had been lynched. She unapologetically divulged the truth about the death of these men to the public through journalism, causing an uprising within the community.

She continued her tenure in social justice by advocating for African American men and women alike, leading her to found the National Association of Colored Women’s Club where she promoted the suffrage movement among African American women. She lived the rest of her life dedicated to service and community advancement, making her a pioneer in countless movements of her time. 

What Can She Teach Us?

While Shad Cary and Wells are similar, their differences stand out. Wells was a fierce advocate for equality and was not afraid to stand up to racists (whether or not that meant putting herself in harm’s way). As a journalist, she expressed ideas in the harshest terms possible, being careful to not sugarcoat anything.

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She didn’t care if her writing made others uncomfortable; it was her primary goal to write the truth, as difficult as it was to hear. Wells teaches journalists to publish facts in the face of adversity or persecution. To all, she teaches to not be afraid of speaking out against injustice, as indifference and silence are just as horrible as blind hatred. 

These two women, though their names aren’t often known, are women of courage and hope. Their work, coupled with the works of others, has impacted the journalism industry and has shaped it into the one we know today. Their legacies live on in each and every pure-hearted journalist and activist who work daily to put an end to injustice around the globe.

In light of recent events and the Black Lives Matter movement, it is more important than ever to highlight the achievements of past and present African Americans. Do your part in supporting the movement by remembering the names of African American scientists, mathematicians, writers, and all those who’ve impacted the foundation of our society throughout history. Their contributions are invaluable and deserve to be put in the spotlight.

Photo: Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library 

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