Terrell, Robert H.

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Robert H. Terrell

Lawyer, judge

Robert Herenton Terrell broke barriers within the legal profession and helped establish a fraternity for African American men. Terrell was born on November 27, 1857, in Charlottesville, Virginia. His parents were Harris and Louisa Ann Terrell. As was the case for most African American youths born during this time, Terrell was educated in public schools. He attended schools in the District of Columbia and was a graduate of the Groton Academy in Groton, Massachusetts. In order to pursue his college education, Terrell worked in a dining hall at Har vard. He was one of seven magna cum laude scholars to graduate from Harvard in June 1884. After graduation, he found work in schools within the Washington D.C. area.

After teaching for a few years, Terrell decided to attend law school and chose the Howard University Law School. He earned his LL.B. in 1889 and his LL.M. in 1893. In 1889, Terrell resigned from his job as a teacher in order to accept a position as the chief clerk in the office of the auditor of the U.S. Treasury.

By 1892, Terrell had his own private practice of law in Washington D.C. He married Mary Church on October28, 1891. Terrell's legal practice continued until 1898, when he left it to returning to teaching. He later became the principal of the M Street High School. During the late 1890s, he also was elected to the Board of Trade.

In 1901, Terrell accepted an appointment to serve as a justice of the peace in Washington D.C, making him the first African American justice of the peace. Terrell's time of service marked a difficult time for him and other African American leaders who were in service positions. Terrell was conflicted by his allegiance to a government that seemingly believed in him enough to appoint him to be a judge, but did not believe in granting basic civil rights to African Americans everywhere. In 1910, President William H. Taft appointed Terrell to be judge of the Municipal Court of the District of Columbia, despite complaints from the racially biased Senate. Terrell accepted this appointment and served in this capacity until his death. He continued to serve in this position, even after suffering with asthma and having two strokes.

Terrell also was a member of the faculty at the Howard University Law School from 1910 to 1925. In 1911, he became one of the charter members of Sigma Pi Phi, Epsilon Boule in Washington.

A law school was named for Terrell in 1931: the Robert H. Terrell Law School operated until 1950. An elementary school in Washington, D.C, was also named in honor of Terrell.

Approximately four years before his death, Terrell suffered from his first stroke. He had another stroke a year later. The second stroke left him paralyzed on one side of his body. Despite these health conditions, Terrell continued to work as a municipal court judge. In early December of 1925, Terrell's asthma worsened and contributed to his declining health. He died at his home on December 20, 1925.


Born in Charlottesville, Virginia on November 27
Graduates magna cum laude from Harvard
Earns his LL.B.; Works as chief clerk in the office of the auditor of the U.S. Treasury Department
Practices law privately
Marries Mary Church, an Oberlin College graduate; earns his LL.M.
Receives appointment as a justice of the peace in Washington, D.C.
Accepts nomination by President William Taft as judge of the Municipal Court of the District of Columbia
Becomes a charter member of sigma Pi Phi, Epsilon Boule in Washington
Dies Washington, D.C. on December 20



"Robert H. Terrell." In The African American Almanac. Ed. Jeffrey Lehman. 9th ed. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2003.

Robinson, Aubrey. "Robert Herenton Terrell." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.

                                    Connie Mack