165 years ago, on February 12th, 1852, Henry Bibb published an announcement in his newspaper, The Voice of the Fugitive, calling for donations to his Homes For Refugees Fund. This was the latest in a long line of advocacy and activism by Bibb; his most notable was the founding of the Voice in 1851.
Henry Bibb was born in 1815, in Louisville, Kentucky, into slavery. He married a free black woman named Mary Miles in 1848. He escaped when he was 22 and made it to Cincinnati, but returned for his wife Mary and was recaptured. He escaped again – with Mary this time – and they made their way to Detroit, crossing over to Windsor after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850. They immediately began taking in refugees who had arrived in Canada through the Underground Railroad.
On January 1st, 1851, the first issue of the Voice was published in Sandwich (now Amherstburg). Bibb had also self-published his autobiography by this time – Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. The Bibbs’ Refugee Home Society was also set up in 1851, and during its tenure settled refugees of slavery in approximately 2,000 acres in the Sandwich area. The Bibbs were often available to greet and settle newcomers personally.
The Voice ended abruptly in 1853 when the offices were burnt to the ground. Bibb did not live to see another project start in its place; he died suddenly in 1854, when he was 39 years of age. Mary continued to provide settlement services and teach both children and adults, remarried, and opened a store in Windsor.
When I started working at OurDigitalWorld, one of the first things I was told about was the amazing newspaper collections we have been able to digitize and share with the world – especially The Voice of the Fugitive and Mary Ann Shadd Cary’s Provincial Freeman. Mary Bibb often gets credit for being Canada’s first black female journalist; Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Canada’s first female publisher.
Mary Ann Shadd was born in 1823 in Delaware; her family moved to Pennsylvania when Delaware made it illegal to school black children. Shadd founded a school for black children just over the border in West Chester, and was persuaded in the early 1850s to move to Essex County by Bibb and start a school.
Shadd believed in integrated schools; Bibb, in segregated education. This and other ideological clashes between the two led Shadd to found what was essentially a competing newspaper. The Freeman was arguably the more politically astute, but also more controversial. Shadd was careful to hide her involvement by hiding behind her initials, or using a male contributor’s name as Editor, but these ruses barely worked and most letters were addressed to the “Editress.”
Letters received by both the Freeman and the Voice attest to the black community’s appreciation for representative periodicals, containing “cogent reasoning, logical arguments, earnest appeals, and faithful exposures, relating to the colored man’s rights and wrongs, coming fresh and forcibly from the hearts and hands of the sufferers themselves.”
After the Provincial Freeman closed and Shadd moved back to the States, she recruited black people for the Union army during the Civil War, went to law school, and was the first black woman to cast a vote in a national election. Shadd’s other accomplishments include founding a racially integrated school; at one point, she took to travelling the country giving speeches and handing out vanity pamphlets about Abolition and emigration to Canada for free black people in America (one such pamphlet’s title: A Plea for Emigration; or Notes of Canada West, in Its Moral, Social and Political Aspect: with Suggestions respecting Mexico, West Indies and Vancouver’s Island for the Information of Colored Emigrants).
The Provincial Freeman ran from 1853 to 1860. It was thought lost for almost 100 years, before a partial set of issues was found at the University of Pennsylvania. Most likely William Still (who was all of contributor, subscriber, and distributor south of the border) donated his copies at some point. Microfilm copies began to make their way north to academic collections, and we are grateful to have been able to digitize and share this reel from the University of Windsor’s collection. We encourage you to browse these invaluable resources and share your thoughts with us and others.