Mary Church Terrell Delta Sigma Theta

Mary Church was one of the first Black women in the United States to receive a college degree, graduated from Oberlin College with a Bachelor’s degree in classics and master’s degree four years later in 1888. In 1892, Terrell was elected president of the famous Washington, D.C. Black discussion group “Bethel Literary and Historical Society,” the first woman to hold the position.

In 1913 Terrell joined the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, which had recently been formed, at Howard University. She was given a degree from Oberlin College in 1948, and an Honorary Degree from Howard and the Universities of Wilberforce.

Mary E. Church was born in Memphis, Tennessee into a family of former slaves, and her parents were divorced. Terrell was educated mainly in Ohio, a place she said she enjoyed.  In explaining her Oberlin College experience, she said “it would be difficult for a colored girl to go through a white school with fewer unpleasant experiences occasioned by race prejudice than I had.” In 1886, she was given a job teaching in Washington, DC at the M Street Colored High School, working in the foreign language department with Robert Heberton Terrell.

In 1888 she completed her master’s degree. To improve her language competency, Mary Terrell took a two year absence to study in France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. When she returned to Washington, D.C., Mary and Robert kept working together, and their friendship blossomed. Both were married in great joy in 1891 but faced problems during the first five years of their marriage since the couple had three children who died shortly after their birth.

In 1895, Mary Church Terrell was selected as one of the three posts reserved for women by the District of Columbia Board of Education. The first Black woman to be a Board member was Terrell. Terrell took part in the meetings of the National Woman Suffrage Association among his professional and personal duties and met Susan B. Anthony.

The association and Anthony had allowed her to talk about suffering and its relationship with “colored women.” Her relationship with both problems led to potential interest in Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.  The organization was involved early in the women’s suffrage movement, and was formed in Howard University on January 13, 1913.  Then-51 year-old Terrell became an honorary member. Her husband died in 1925, and she spent the rest of her life in Washington, D.C.

She published her White World Colored Woman autobiography in 1940. One of the last segments explains how she wants to be involved when she gets older. Awards like the honorary Ph.D. from Oberlin College in 1948 in humane letters or equivalent honorary degrees from Howard and the University of Wilberforce appeared to motivate Terrell deeper into motion.

She also campaigned the National University of Women aggressively for the admission of Black people during her eighties. At the age of 91 Terrell dies only days before the decision of the Brown v. Board of Education which overturned the “separate yet equal” situation which she saw come and go.



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