Mary Church Terrell, born in 1863, was the daughter of Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers and had mixed racial ancestry. While both her parents were freed slaves, her father went on to become one of the first African American millionaires in the south and also founded the first Black owned bank in Memphis, Tennessee. Through his bank, he extended credit to Black Americans so they could establish businesses, buy homes and lead better lives. He also used his wealth to develop parks, auditoriums and other facilities for the African American community. Her parents were prominent members of the Black elite of Memphis during the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War.
Terrell and her brother were born of Robert Reed Church’s first (of three) marriage.
Her mother Louisa Ayers is widely considered one of the first African American women to establish and run a hair salon.
She was a successful businesswoman at a time when owning a business was unthinkable for most women.
She encouraged her daughter, Mary, to attend Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio as she considered most Memphis Schools meant for the Black community to be inadequate.
She went to high school in Oberlin, Ohio, and attended Oberlin College and majored in Classics.
Oberlin College was the first in the United States that allowed Black students, including women, to enroll.
She excelled in her studies and extracurricular activities, and was nominated by her freshman class as the class poet. She was also elected into two of the college’s literary societies. Women at the time were able to complete a degree in two years, as opposed to the four years it took for men. She took the ‘gentlemen’s path’ which meant that she learned more and studied a more diverse range of subjects in comparison to most other women.
Other prominent members of her graduating class included Anna Julia Cooper and Ida Gibbs Hunt. The three of them remained close and became well respected activists for racial and gender equality. She (along with Anna Julia Cooper) went on to become one of the first African American women to earn a master’s degree.
Despite her father’s disapproval, she began working as an educator after graduating from college. She taught at Wilberforce College in Ohio before joining the faculty at M Street Colored High School, the first school for African Americans, in Washington, D.C in 1887. This is where she met Robert Heberton Terrell, a fellow educator as well as the man she would eventually marry. Married women, in Washington D.C. at that time, could not work as teachers. Therefore, she resigned when they got married in 1891.
Early Activism and the Formation of the CWL, NCAW and NCAUW
Her upbringing, her parents’ philanthropy and the problems faced by the African American community played an important part in her road to becoming a leader in racial and gender equality movements. Many believe that it was the lynching of her friend, Thomas Moss, which sparked her activism in 1892. He was lynched by a white man just because his business competed with theirs. Over the years she became associated and worked closely with the likes of Ida Wells and Susan B Anthony among a list of other notable and respected activists.
Both she and Frederick Douglass appealed to President Harrison to condemn the lynching publicly. When that failed, she, along with Ida B. Wells, Anna Julie Cooper, and others, formed the Colored Women’s League in Washington, D.C. Four years later, she became one of the founding members and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). The NACW adopted the motto “Lifting as we climb,” and fought to achieve solidarity against racial and gender discrimination. The organization helped build day nurseries and kindergartens for African American children.
She also help form the National Association of College Women, which came to be known as the National Association of University Women (NCAUW) later on. Her achievements as an educator and an activist helped her become the first Black woman elected to a Board of Education in a major city (Washington). She held this post from 1895 to 1905.
Terrell first became a suffragette during her time as a student at Oberlin College. She continued to be a supporter of the cause after the completion of her studies and became actively involved in suffragette circles. She became associated with Susan B Anthony through National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) meetings. The friendship lasted until Anthony’s death in 1906, and has a lasting impact on Terrell’s activism. She was one of the few Black women allowed to speak as NAWSA meetings, an opportunity she used to talk about the injustices and issues faced by her community. In 1904, she spoke at the International Council of Women and gave the speech entirely in German. She talked about the need for suffrage and the removal of sexual and racial barriers that Black women faced even within the greater suffrage movement.
In February of 1898, Terrell gave a speech at a NAWSA meeting in Washington, D.C. The speech pleaded with the Association to fight for the rights and lives of Black women as well. It received a positive reaction from NAWSA and received great coverage in Black newspapers.
While NAWSA was fighting for the right of women to vote, it did not allow Black women to participate actively in their activities or to create their own NAWSA chapters. After her address, however, Terrell was invited back as an ambassador for the Black community in an unofficial capacity. Some of her most famous speeches are:
i) The Progress of Colored Women – A call to action for NAWSA for fighting for the rights of Black women as well.
ii) In Union There is Strength – A speech emphasizing on the importance of unity in the Black community.
iii) What it Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States – A reflection of her own experiences and struggles as an African American Woman In Washington, D.C.
She also spoke at the Seneca Falls Historical Society in 1908, praising the efforts of fellow suffragettes fighting for the rights of all races and genders. She led the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority of Howard University at a NAWSA rally in 1913. She was an active member of the Republican Party and president of the Women’s Republican League during the elections of 1920 – the first time white women were allowed to vote.
Desegregation and Integration
While she was born free and in a wealthy family, she still experienced and witnessed systematic racism, segregation and injustice. She learned about women’s rights and the various movements struggling to make life better for the marginalized and mistreated segments of society. She started on her road to becoming a civil rights leader while she was a student at Oberlin College, which is also where she became familiar and acquainted with Susan B Anthony’s brand of activism. This would have a lasting influence on the various aspects of her life and work.
She identified as a writer and had a distinguished career as a journalist. She worked under the pseudonym Euphemia Kirk and wrote for, both, Black and white publishers promoting her beliefs and ideologies. The list of newspapers she wrote for include the A.M.E Church Review (Philadelphia), The Southern Workman (Hampton, Virginia), the Indianapolis Freeman (Indianapolis), The Afro-American (Baltimore), The Washington Tribune (Washington), the Washington Evening Star and the Washington Post among many others.
Terrell tried to integrate the different women’s organized movements and clubs with the general struggle of African Americans in their fight for equality. During her formative years, using her family’s resources and contacts as well as through her own efforts she met the famous and influential Booker T Washington, Frederick Douglas and other activists of note. She and Douglass worked closely on multiple civil rights campaigns. In fact, it was Douglass who convinced her to keep fighting for civil and women’s rights once she got married and considered retiring from her life of activism. She fought fiercely with other activists trying to achieve an end to the lawless discrimination faced by the Black community – such as the lack of due process.
Terrell was active during the First World War as well, fighting for the rights of Black servicemen. After the war, she along with other notable activists such as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, fought for the reintegration of Black veterans into the economy by emphasizing their need for jobs. She was chosen as a delegate to attend the International Peace Conference, where she was invited to stay with H.G Well during her visit to England.
She worked for the inclusion of women, in general, and Black women, in particular, in the country’s voting and political processes. She was a huge part of the 19th Amendment and an active member of the Republican Party in 1920 – the first time that women were allowed to vote. While she died in 1954 – 11 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which brought an end to the electoral and political suppression faced by the African American community – she is still considered an integral part of the civil rights movement.
She was an important part of the (successful) fight to integrate restaurants in Washington, D.C in 1950 – almost 60 years after formalized segregation. Before the 1870s, integration laws in D.C did not segregate on the basis of race or colors but instead on behavior and respectability. Terrell, in 1949, along with other notable activists entered the segregated Thompson Restaurant in a move that would becoming an iconic part of Black history and the fight for integration and equality. Consequently, segregation laws for dining establishments in Washington were deemed unconstitutional and repealed after a lengthy 3-year long court battle ending in 1953. During this time, she and her fellow activists targeted other restaurants in similar fashion and the tactics employed included vocal and visible protests and sit-ins, picketing and communal boycotts.
Despite her age and wavering health, she continued to participate in protests and picket lines fighting against discrimination and for desegregation. She was one of driving forces behind the inclusion of Black women in the D.C chapter of the American Association of University Women. She also lived long enough to see another famous victory for her community – the 1954 verdict of the Brown vs Board of Education court battle which deemed the racial segregation of public schools to be unconstitutional.
Education of Mary Church Terrell
• Terell and her brother were taught the importance of a good education from an early age.
• Feeling the facilities and quality of education available to African Americans provided by schools in Memphis were below par, she was sent to attend high school in Oberlin, Ohio.
• She completed a 4 year degree in 1884 from Oberlin College and was one of the first African American Women in the United States to earn a college degree. This is where she got acquainted with many known activists and their ideologies including Ida B West, Susan B Anthony, and Anna Julie Cooper among others.
• By 1888, she also completed her master’s degree from Oberlin College, becoming one of the first and few African American woman to do so.
• Upon the completion of her master’s degree, she spent the next two years travelling and learning languages in France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany.
• During her time at Oberlin College, she was voted as the class poet and became a member of various clubs and literary societies. She was given easy access to and learned from orators, activists, singers, musicians and other notable personalities of the time.
• Contrary to the experiences of most other women, in general, and Black women, in particular, she was treated well by her professors and her peers. She wrote that it would have been difficult for a Black woman in a white school to be treated better than she was.
• She published numerous articles in the college newspaper – The Oberlin Review.
• Throughout her educational years, she would take every opportunity to visit Washington, a city she would later call home. It was during these trips that she got acquainted with fellow activist Frederick Douglass who became a lifelong friend.
• Upon the completion of her bachelor’s degree in 1884, she would go on to teach modern languages at Wilberforce University. Wilberforce University was a predominantly and historically Black college that was founded and governed by the Methodist Church of Ohio in collaboration with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
• In 1886 she was offered a job teaching Latin in the M Street Colored High School (now known as the Dunbar High School) in Washington D.C. This is where she came across Robert Heberton Terrell in the foreign languages department – the man she would go on to marry.
• Upon returning from her 2-year leave of absence and her travel and studies in Europe, she resumed working alongside Robert Terrell until they got married in 1891.
• That’s when Terrell had to quit her job as the laws at the time did not allow married women to work as teachers.
• In 1895, she was appointed to one of the three seats reserved for women in the D.C Board of Education. She was the first Black woman to be appointed to the role.
• She worked on the Board of Education for 6 years, until she had to resign over a conflict of interest when there was a vote to appoint her husband as the principal of the M Street School.
• While she remained an activist during and after her college years, her focus increasingly shifted to the civil and women’s rights movements that she was an increasingly important part of.
• She eventually became a respected author and a well-known journalist under her pseudonym Euphemia Kirk. As a journalist she worked for many notable newspapers in a effort to raise awareness and speak up for the rights of women and the African American community as a whole.
• In her role as a social and civil activist, she would go on to be a member and leader of many clubs and societies formed to fight for the lives of the Black community, with a focus on the rights of women. Some of the notable mentions are the Colored Women’s League (CWL), the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the National Association of University Women (NAUW), the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA), and many others.
While she was well-read and wrote on a diverse range of subjects, some of her articles, speeches and books stand out more than others. While there are countless works that had an impact, a short list of her most prominent works includes;
i) “Duty of the National Association of Colored Women to the Race” – An article published in the A.M.E Church Review in January 1900.
ii) “Club Work of Colored Women” – An article for the Southern Workman in August 1901.
iii) “Society Among the Colored People of Washington” – for the Voice of the Negro in April 1904.
iv) “Lynching from a Negro’s Point of View” – An article for the North American Review Volume 178 in 1904.
v) “Paul Lawrence Dunbar” – for the Voice of the Negro in April 1906.
vi) “Susan B Anthony, the Abolitionist” – in the Voice of the Negro in June 1906.
vii) “What It Means to Be a Colored to be A Colored Woman in the Capital of the United States” – an article about her own experience in Washington for the Independent in October 1906.
viii) A Colored Woman in a White World – An autobiography written in 1940.
ix) “I Remember Frederick Douglass” – for Ebony in 1953.
Family Life, Later Years and Death
She met Robert Heberton Terrell when she started working for the foreign language department at the M Street Colored High School (now known as the Paul Dunbar High School) in 1886. The couple continued working together until they got married in 1891. The first five years after marriage were tragic as they lost 3 children soon after birth.
Their daughter Phyllis Terrell, named after the famous African American poet Phyllis Wheatley, was the only one of their biological children to survive into adulthood. Taking after her mother, Phyllis became an activist and suffragette, working alongside her mother in the various women’s clubs and societies that Mary Terrell was an integral part of. In 1962 she was successful in getting the Frederick Douglass House in Washington D.C, previously declared a shrine by an Act of Congress. The couple also had another adopted daughter, Mary. Mary Terrell was widowed at the age of 58 when her husband, Robert, died of a stroke in 1921.
Terrell spent most of her youth and adulthood fighting for gender and racial equality and protested against racism, segregation and discrimination. She was a passionate suffragette and an energetic leader of different civil movements. Growing older did not diminish her energy or her enthusiasm for the causes that she believed in. Some of her most important works, including her autobiography in 1940, were published in her later years. Also, she remained actively and physically involved in protects and picket lines in her fight for desegregation and integration at restaurants in Washington D.C.
With age and experience, she became more forceful and more respected in her fight for civil rights and liberties. It was in her later years that she appeared before Congress to urge them to pass an anti-lynching bill. In 1946, she applied for membership of the American Association of University Women. Though initially rejected, she appealed and was accepted into the organization 3 years later.
In her late 80s, she presided over the meetings of the different organizations that she was a part of, spoke a rallies and conventions and participated in protests and sit-ins. It was in 1950, at the age of 87, when she contested and, eventually, won the court battle that ruled the segregation of Blacks in restaurants to be against the constitution of the United States.
While white women had earned the right to vote in 1920 after the 19th amendment, Black Americans remained, mostly, disenfranchised from political processes. She was an integral part of the civil movements that lead to the reforms until the Civil Rights Act of 1965.
Terrell continued to fight for the prejudices faced by her race and gender until the very end. She was given a White House reception on her 90th birthday which was attended by around 700 people. She addressed the gathering and made a pledge to fight to end racial discrimination in Washington by the time she was a 100 years old. However, she died a few months later on the 24th of July, 1954. She died of cancer and her body was laid in state at the National Association of Colored Women – an organization that she helped form 60 years before her death. Thousands are estimated to have paid their respects.
Legacy, Honors and Achievements
• She was recognized as one of the college’s top alumni at the centennial celebrations at Oberlin College in 1933
• She was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Human Letters by Oberlin College in 1948
• Her home in Washington was named as a National Historic Landmark in 1975
• The Mary Church Terrell Elementary School in Washington D.C was named in her honor
• She was included in Molefi Kete Asante’s list of 100 Greatest African Americans in 2002
• She was honored by the US Postal Service when she was among 12 civil rights leaders commemorated through a special postage stamp series in 2009
• Oberlin College named its main library after her in 2018
Other notable mentions:
i) She was one of the first African Americans to earn bachelors and master’s degrees paving the way for many others.
ii) She was one of the first and few African American women chosen to speak at various national and international conventions and club meetings.
iii) She fought (successfully) for inclusivity of Black women in various clubs, societies, civil rights and suffrage movements.
iv) She fought (successfully) to rule segregation in restaurants as unconstitutional – paving the way for greater integration.
v) She fought (successfully) for the inclusion of African American women in the American Association of University Women.
vi) She was an honorary president of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority