Terrell, Mary Eliza Church

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Terrell, Mary Eliza Church

September 26, 1863
July 24, 1954

The civil rights activist and women's rights advocate Mary Eliza Church Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, into a prosperous family of former slaves; she graduated from Oberlin College (1884) at the head of her class, then taught at Wilberforce University (18851887) and briefly in a high school in Washington, D.C. After receiving an M.A. from Oberlin (1888), she traveled in Europe for two years, studying French, German, and Italian. In 1891 she married Robert Terrell, who was appointed judge of District of Columbia Municipal Court in 1901.

The overlapping concerns that characterized Terrell's lifepublic-education reform, women's rights, and civil rightsfound expression in community work and organizational activities. She served as the first woman president of Bethel Literary and Historical Association (18921893) and was the first black woman appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education (18951901, 19061911).

In spite of elements of racism and nativism in the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Terrell was an active member and addressed its conventions in 1898 and 1900. She joined the Woman's Party picket line at the White House, and after the achievement of suffrage was active in the Republican Party.

Women's international affairs involved her as well. She addressed the International Council of Women (Berlin, 1904) in English, German, and French, the only American to do so; was a delegate to the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (Zurich, 1919); was a vice president of the International Council of Women of the Darker Races; and addressed the International Assembly of the World Fellowship of Faiths (London, 1937).

Terrell participated in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was vice president of the Washington, D.C., branch for many years. Her various causes coalesced around her concern with the quality of black women's lives. In 1892 she helped organize and headed the National League for the Protection of Colored Women, in Washington, D.C.; she was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, serving three terms (18961901) before being named honorary president for life and a vice president of the National Council of Negro Women.

Terrell worked for the unionization of black women and for their inclusion in established women's affairs. In 1919 she campaigned, unsuccessfully, for a colored women's division within the Women's Bureau of the Department of Labor, and to have the First International Congress of Working Women directly address the concerns of black working women.

Age did not diminish Terrell's activism. Denied admission to the Washington chapter of the American Association of University Women in 1946 on racial grounds, she entered a three-year legal battle that led the national group to clarify its bylaws to read that a college degree was the only requirement for membership. In 1949 Terrell joined the sit-ins that challenged segregation in public accommodations and a landmark civil rights case, as well as serving as chair of the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the District of Columbia Anti-Discrimination Laws.

In addition to her picketing and sit-ins, Terrell wrote many magazine articles treating disfranchisement, discrimination, and racism, as well as an autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World (1940).

See also Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); National Association of Colored Women; National Council of Negro Women


Sterling, Dorothy. "Mary Eliza Church Terrell." In Notable American Women: The Modern Period, edited by Barbara Sicherman et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1980, pp. 678680.

quandra prettyman (1996)