Terrell, Mary Church 1863–1954

views updated May 11 2018

Mary Church Terrell 18631954

Political activist, educator

At a Glance

Traded her First Career for Marriage

Embarked on Politically Active Path

Fought for Womens Rights

Won Court Battle

Selected writings


Mary Church Terrell, a lecturer, political activist, and educator, dedicated her life to improving social conditions for black American women. Terrells long life spanned the worst decades of segregation in the United States, during which she was a tireless worker against such unfair laws as the discriminatory Jim Crow legislation. She helped to found two of the most important black political action groups, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She fought for womens suffrage and for integration in public education and lived just long enough to see her efforts bear fruit both in her home city of Washington, DC and the nation at large.

Mary Eliza Church was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 23, 1863. Earlier that year, U.S. president Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing black Americans from slavery. Both of her parents were former slaves who had moved to Memphis in search of employment. Creating a financially stable, religious, and conservative household, Marys parents wanted their intelligent and personable daughter to receive a better education than the segregated schools in Memphis might provide.

Toward that end, the Churches sent six-year-old Mary north to Yellow Springs, Ohio. There she attended the Antioch College Model School, and was often the only black youngster in her classes. She boarded with a local black family, the Hunsters, and gradually began considering them a second set of parents. After two years at the Model School, she switched to the local public schools. She finished her high school education at a public school in Oberlin, Ohio, graduating in 1879.

Mary was accepted at Oberlin Collegeat the time, one of the few integrated universities in the United States. Most of the women at the college in those days pursued a two-year curriculum especially for ladies. Mary had other ideas. She threw herself into the classes for the four-year gentlemans course in preparation for a serious career. She earned good grades in a course of classical studies and managed to find time for numerous extracurricular activities as well. Earning a bachelors degree in 1884, she immediately announced her intentions of pursuing a masters degree.

Marys parentsespecially her fatherwanted her to follow the conventional pattern of marriage and family. Even while in

At a Glance

Born Mary Eliza Church, September 23, 1863, in Memphis, TN; died July 24, 1954; daughter of Robert Reed and Louisa (Ayers) Church; married Robert Terrell (an educator, lawyer, and municipal court judge), October, 1891; children: Phyllis, Terrell Church (adopted). Education: Oberlin College, B.A., 1884, M.A., 1888. Politics: Republican.

Wilberforce College, Ohio, instructor, 188586; Colored High School, Washington, DC, Latin teacher, 188688; Colored Womens League, Washington, DC, founder and president, 189296; National Association of Colored Women, founder and president, 18961904, honorary president for life, 190454. Lecturer on social and racial issues in America and Europe, 189254; member of Board of Education of Washington, DC, 18951901, 190611; chair of Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of District of Columbia Anti-Discrimination Laws, 1949.

Member: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP; charter member), Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Bethel Literary and Historical Association.

Selected awards: Honorary degrees from Howard University, Wilberforce College, and Oberlin College.

her twenties, a time when womens employment outside the home was widely viewed with disdain, Mary wanted to work. In 1885 she accepted a teaching position at Wilberforce College in Ohio. Her father was furious, and his anger tore a rift in the family that took some years to heal. Mary had little time to brood on the estrangement. At Wilberforce she taught five different classes and served as college secretary, while simultaneously working toward a masters degree at Oberlin.

Traded her First Career for Marriage

In 1886 Mary accepted a position at the Colored High School in Washington, DC. She taught Latin under the direction of Robert Heberton Terrell, a graduate of Harvard University. The professional relationship between the two young teachers gradually became more personal, withstanding long periods of separation. After earning her masters degree in 1888, Mary spent two years traveling and studying in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and England. It was only when she returned from her long stay abroad that she set a date to marry Robert Terrell.

Mary Church and Robert Terrell married in a lavish wedding ceremony in Memphis in October of 1891. She was well aware that her marriage would prove the end to her professional careermarried women were not allowed to teach most places in the United States at that time. The decision was made doubly poignant when she was offered the important job of registrar at her alma mater, Oberlin. Nevertheless, Terrell returned to Washington, DC with her husband, planning to become a homemaker. Her only child, a daughter named Phyllis, was born in 1898, and the family adopted a niece named Terrell Church in 1905.

Embarked on Politically Active Path

At the turn of the century, a motivated woman who was not a wage-earner could work just as hard for any number of charitable or political causes. While Robert Terrell advanced from a career in education to a law firm, and later to a seat on the District of Columbia Municipal Court bench, his wife began dabbling in politics. The event that drove Mary Terrell back into public life was the 1892 lynching of a friend from Memphis, Tom Moss, who was murdered by whites jealous of the success of his grocery store.

Lynching of innocent blacksespecially menwas frequent in the South, and it occurred in the North as well. Terrell mounted a campaign against lynching that eventually led her, accompanied by former slave Frederick Douglass, to the White House. Together, Terrell and Douglass urged President Benjamin Harrison to speak out against racial violence. The president never did as they asked.

Benjamin Harrison could easily afford to ignore Mary Church Terrell. She was a woman, after all, and women could not vote. This fact was yet another indignity that struck Terrell as blatantly unfair. As she sought to organize an association of black women, she also joined the womens suffrage or voting rights movement, uniting her causes of racial equality and gender equality in one appeal.

Fought for Womens Rights

In 1892 Terrell became the leader of a local Washington, DC club called the Colored Womens League. Within a few years the group merged with other black womens organizations to become the National Association of Colored Women. Terrell was elected the first president of this national society and went on to serve three terms before being named honorary president for life. The NACW tackled an aggressive agenda of social reform, establishing day care centers for children of black working mothers and campaigning for female suffrage, equal rights for blacks, a repeal of Jim Crow legislation, and improved working conditions for black women.

Terrell, who had thought her professional career was finished, suddenly found herself in the national spotlight, a friend and confidante to Mary McLeod Bethune, Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, and Susan B. Anthony. Terrell became a lecturer of international renown, delivering speeches and publishing articles on black issues and womens suffrage in the United States and Europe.

As the 1890s progressed and her fame grew, Terrell was recruited by the Slayton Lyceum Bureau to be a professional lecturer. Her travels were only limited by her obligations at home, but even there she performed many important tasks. In 1895 she was elected to the Washington, DC Board of Education, the first black female to serve in that capacity. Living in the nations capital also afforded Terrell ample opportunity to march and demonstrate for womens suffrage in front of the White House and the Capitol Building.

Terrells status among black women ensured that her opinions and support would be sought when a new national organization for black people was founded in 1901. At the invitation of W. E. B. DuBois, Terrell became a charter member of the NAACP and continued her membership throughout the rest of her life. She also became active in Republican politics, especially after women were granted the right to vote. In 1920 she was asked to supervise all campaign efforts among black women in the East, a task that led to further lecturing and organization-building.

Won Court Battle

Blessed with good health and a stable home life, Terrell worked for the cause of black civil rights with few interruptions through several decades. In 1940, Terrell published her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, a work that used her own more than 70 years of life as an example of the difficulties blacks faced in a predominantly white society. By that time Terrell was considered an important elder stateswoman in the civil rights and womens rights struggles. She had received honorary doctorates from Howard University and Wilberforce and Oberlin colleges and had been named one of the 100 most successful students to graduate from Oberlin.

During the last decade of her life Terrell dedicated herself to ending discrimination in public places in her home city of Washington, DC. In 1949 she was elected chairperson of the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of District of Columbia Anti-Discrimination Laws. The district had anti-discrimination laws on the books, but segregated public facilities were common. Although nearly 90 years old at the time, Terrell led demonstrations in front of local restaurants and, finally, was part of a small group that sued a particular eating establishment that refused to serve them. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and Terrell testified there as one of the litigants. The case was won in 1953, and the nations capital began desegregating.

Terrell lived just long enough to learn of the Supreme Courts Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which effectively ended segregation in public schools, a crusade Terrell had pursued herself for years. She died on July 24, 1954, and was buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Washington, DC. By virtue of her long dedication to the causes of equal rights and quality public education, she was honored by having a school named after her in the District of Columbia. Her home is also preserved as a historic landmark.

Terrells dedication to important national causes helped to galvanize support for equal rights among women of all races and economic levels. Hers was a long and notable life, according to Debra Newman Ham in Epic Lives, consumed by the need to improve the social, economic, and political conditions of black Americans. During a time when most black American women were consigned to the lowest rungs of the social ladder, Mary Church Terrell demonstrated what an educated, thoughtful, and articulate citizen could accomplish, both in her own backyard and in the wider world.

Selected writings

A Colored Woman in a White World, Ransdell, 1940, reprinted, Arno Press, 1980.


Giddings, Paula, When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, Morrow, 1984.

Jones, Beverly Washington, Quest for Equality: The Life and Writings of Mary Church Terrell, Carlson Publishers, 1990.

Salley, Columbus, editor, The Black 100, Citadel Press, 1993.

Shepperd, Gladys B., Mary Church TerrellRespectable Person, Human Relations Press, 1959.

Smith, Jessie Carney, editor, Epic Lives, Visible Ink Press, 1993, pp. 509528.

Anne Janette Johnson

Mary Church Terrell

views updated May 14 2018

Mary Church Terrell

For 70 years, Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was a prominent advocate of African American and women's rights. She traveled around the world speaking about the achievements of African Americans and raising awareness of the conditions in which they lived.

Mary Eliza Church was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 23, 1863, to two recently emancipated slaves. Her father, Robert Reed Church, was the son of a white river boat captain and a black house servant. After settling in Memphis, Robert Church operated a saloon. Mary's mother, Louisa Ayers Church, had been a house servant who was well educated and well treated before her emancipation.

Robert and Louisa Church were both light-skinned African American blacks who lived a comfortable life in a white neighborhood outside Memphis where Louisa operated a successful hair salon. Mary, known as Mollie, had a brother four years younger. She grew up with white friends and knew little about the condition in which most African American people lived until she was about five years old. When her maternal grandmother, a former house slave, told her stories about the brutality of slave owners, Terrell began to understand the history of African Americans. In her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, Terrell described how she cried when she heard her grandmother's stories and her grandmother comforted her, saying, "Never mind, honey. Gramma ain't a slave no more."

Robert and Louisa Church divorced when Mary was very young and Louisa moved north to New York where she opened another, equally successful, hair salon. Because educational opportunities for African American children were poor in Memphis, Terrell was sent north to live with her mother when she was six years old. Terrell was one of only a handful of African American children in the school she now attended, and she was sometimes ridiculed because of her race. When studying the Emancipation Proclamation, a fellow student made a rude remark to Terrell. In her autobiography she described her reaction: "I resolved that so far as this descendant of slaves was concerned, she would show those white girls and boys whose forefathers had always been free that she was their equal in every respect… . I felt I must hold high the banner of my race."

Terrell eventually attended Oberlin High School in Oberlin, Ohio, and from there enrolled at Oberlin College where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1884. After graduating she returned to Memphis, where her father had remarried. By this time, Robert Church had become very wealthy. In 1879 Memphis experienced a yellow fever epidemic, causing residents to evacuate the city in a panic, selling their properly for next to nothing as they fled. Robert Church invested all of his money in real estate during the evacuation and within a few years he was a millionaire.

Began Teaching Career

Robert Church was opposed to his daughter working; he wished her to remain in Memphis and marry. But Terrell was restless; she had been looking forward to a teaching career and promoting the welfare of her race. After a year in Memphis she returned to the Midwest, taking a teaching job at Wilberforce University, near Xenia, Ohio. Her father was incensed that she had defied his wishes and for a time he refused to communicate with her.

In 1887 Terrell moved to Washington, D.C. where she taught Latin at the M Street Colored High School. After a year, her father, with whom she had by now reconciled, sent her to study in Europe. She spent two years traveling in France, Germany, and Italy, countries free from racial discrimination. She considered staying in Europe, but said in her autobiography, "I knew I would be much happier trying to promote the welfare of my race in my native land, working under certain hard conditions, than I would be living in a foreign land where I could enjoy freedom from prejudice, but where I would make no effort to do the work which I then believed it was my duty to do."

Terrell returned to the M Street School, where she was reunited with her supervisor, Robert Heberton Terrell. Robert Terrell was one of the first African Americans to graduate from Harvard University, and he had paid court to Terrell before her trip to Europe. In 1891 the two were married, and they made their new home in Washington, D.C. Marriage marked the end of Terrell's teaching career, since married women did not work. Robert Terrell attended law school at night and left teaching to work as an attorney and eventually became the first African American municipal judge in the nation's capitol city.

The first few years of the Terrells' marriage were marked by illness and disappointment. Mary Terrell was often sick and within five years had lost three babies shortly after their birth. Her fourth child, a girl named Phyllis, was born healthy in 1898. The couple adopted Mary's ten-year-old niece, also named Mary, in 1905.

Raised Awareness of Discrimination

Terrell devoted her life to improving the lives of African Americans and especially women. Her public service began when she was appointed to the Washington, D.C. school board. The first African American woman on the board, she served from 1895 to 1901 and again from 1906 to 1911.

Terrell and her husband were both advocates of women's suffrage. Terrell often marched for women's rights in front of the White House and Capitol Hill. At meetings of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, a group led by suffragist Susan B. Anthony, Terrell encouraged the group to include African American women in their agenda. In 1898 Anthony invited Terrell to address the group on "The Progress and Problems of Colored Women." A few years later she spoke again, this time without regard to race, on "The Justice of Woman Suffrage." Terrell soon earned a reputation as an effective speaker and activist.

After passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote, the Republican Party named Terrell director of Colored Women of the East. She organized efforts in eastern states encouraging women to use their right to vote.

Advocating on behalf of African American women led Terrell to found the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. She served two terms as the group's president and then was named honorary president for life. She was also a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Terrell's oratory skills earned her a position as a professional lecturer for Slayton Lyceum Bureau. She traveled throughout the south and east speaking of the achievements of African American women and advocating for justice and education for African Americans and people of color around the world. Terrell was surprised at how little white people knew about the conditions in which African Americans lived, and she worked to raise awareness of discrimination, disenfranchisement, and lynching. She also wrote numerous magazine and newspaper articles highlighting civil rights issues.

On The Road

It was not easy or safe for a African American woman to travel alone in the South during the early 20th century. Terrell was light skinned and was sometimes mistaken for a white person. Although she did not advocate African American people crossing "the color line" and living as white, she did not draw attention to her race if she could get away with using white accommodations. When she was recognized as African American, she was prohibited from eating in restaurants, traveling in Pullman cars, or staying in most hotels. She described many examples of such discrimination in her autobiography.

Despite her political activism, Terrell was devoted to her children and never left home for more then three weeks at a time. Her mother lived with her family for 15 years and cared for the children when Terrell was away. Daughters Phyllis and Mary both graduated from college and became teachers. Daughter Mary was a musician as well.

Terrell's speaking engagements took her abroad for the first time in 1904, when she spoke at the International Congress of Women in Berlin, Germany. Her speech raised awareness in Europe of the race problem in America. She spoke at the International Congress of Women again following World War I in 1919. Although the conference included women from around the world, Terrell was the only woman of color in attendance. She felt that she represented not only the United States, but all the non-white countries of the world. In her speech she emphasized the importance of justice and fairness for people of color, stressing that a lasting peace will never come to pass while inequality exists among the races.

Elderly Activist

Robert Terrell suffered a stroke in 1921 and died four years later. Terrell was 62 years old when she was widowed. Six years later she fell in love again, but because the man was married the relationship ended. In 1937, when Terrell was aged 73, her brother died, leaving her to raise her ten-year-old nephew, Thomas Church.

In 1940 the 77-year-old activist's autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, was published. The book describes Terell's childhood, education, and her years of travel and advocacy on behalf of African American rights. Terrell described the prejudice she encountered in restaurants, hotels, theaters, education, employment, while buying a home—virtually every aspect of her life. She described times when, weak with hunger, she had to pass by restaurants in Washington, D.C. because they did not serve African American people. She recounted how she was offered jobs or club memberships, only to have the offers revoked when it was discovered that she was African American. While Terrell intended the book to be a forthright account of the prejudice she had experienced, the autobiography described events in polite terms and was less critical of American society than she perhaps intended. In contrast, her diaries reveal a more emotional response to the treatment she had endured.

As she aged Terrell became more forceful in her fight for civil rights. She appeared before the U.S. Congress to urge passage of an anti-lynching bill. In 1946 she applied for membership in the American Association of University Women. When her application was rejected, she appealed and after three years the board finally voted to admit African American women.

In 1949, when she was 86 years old, Terrell was invited to be honorary chairperson of the coordinating committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Law in Washington, D.C. The District of Columbia had on its books 1872 and 1873 laws prohibiting exclusion of African American people from restaurants, theaters, and other public places, although these statutes had never been enforced. In fact, they had been illegally deleted from the District Code in the 1890s. Terrell, not satisfied with being honorary chair, became the group's working chairperson. She presided over meetings, spoke at rallies, and on January 7, 1950, led a group of four African American people to Thompson's cafeteria, located two blocks from the White House. Terrell and her companions put soup on their trays and sat down to eat. They were asked to leave, prompting the committee to file a lawsuit charging the restaurant with violating their civil rights.

While the suit dragged through the courts, Terrell and her group met with restaurant and store owners trying to convince them to open their lunch counters to everyone. Some businesses complied, but many more remained closed to African Americans. Terrell encouraged boycotts and picketed the holdouts. For two years Terrell, now aged and stooped, led the picket line day after day, in all kinds of weather. In Black Foremothers: Three Lives, a younger picketer is quoted as recalling: "When my feet hurt I wasn't going to let a women fifty years older than I do what I couldn't do. I kept on picketing." One by one, the restaurants gave in and on June 8, 1953, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Terrell's favor.

Terrell continued to fight battles on behalf of her race until her death. Her 90th birthday was marked by a party for 700 people and included a White House reception. Addressing the gathering, she pledged to see an end to racial discrimination within Washington, D.C. by the time she reached 100 years of age. Her wish would not be granted, however; a few months later, on July 24, 1954, Terrell died of cancer at her summer home in Highland Beach, Maryland. Her body lay in state in the headquarters building of the National Association of Colored Women, which she had co-founded nearly 60 years earlier. Thousands paid their respects.


Notable American Women: The Modern Period, edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green, Belknap Press, 1980.

Sterling, Dorothy, Black Foremothers: Three Lives, Feminist Press, 1988.

Terrell, Mary Church, A Colored Woman in a White World, Ransdell Inc., 1940.

Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Anne Commire, editor, Yorkin Publications, 1999. □

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