Terrell, Mary Church (1863–1954)

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Terrell, Mary Church (1863–1954)

First president of the National Association of Colored Women, who championed causes including racial justice, woman's suffrage, and internationalism. Pronunciation: TER-el. Born Mary ("Mollie") Eliza Church on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee; died of cancer at her home in Highland Beach, Maryland, on July 24, 1954; daughter of Robert Reed Church (a saloon owner who later became a millionaire) and Louisa (Ayers) Church (a hair store proprietor); attended Antioch College Model School; graduated from Oberlin College Academy, 1880; Oberlin College, B.A., 1884; married Robert Heberton Terrell, on October 28, 1891; children: Phyllis and Mary (adopted), and three who died in infancy.

Parents divorced (1869); enrolled in Antioch College Model School (1870); attended Oberlin College Academy (1875–80); attended Oberlin College (1880–84); taught at Wilberforce University (1885–87), and M Street Colored High School in Washington, D.C. (1887–88, 1890–91); was a member of the District of Columbia Board of Education (1895–1901, 1906–11); served as president of the National Association of Colored Women (1896–1901); was a founding member of the NAACP (1910); was a lecturer at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Science (1911–13); was a delegate to the founding conference of WILPF, Zurich (1919); appointed director of the Work among Colored Women in the East for the Republican National Committee (1920); wrote autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World (1940); was the first African-American member of the American Association of University Women (1949); chaired the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the District of Columbia's Anti-Discrimination Laws (1949–53).

In September 1897, the newly elected president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) addressed its first annual conference in Nashville, Tennessee. In this stirring speech, Mary Church Terrell focused on the special role women should play in uplifting the plight of African-American children. She called for NACW activists to enter the home, "that sacred domain, to inculcate right principles of living and correct false views of life. Homes, more homes, purer homes, better homes, is the text upon which our sermons to the masses must be preached." She asked her audience, which included prominent, well-educated black women, to lead by example:

Let us not only preach, but practice race unity, race pride, reverence, and respect for those capable of leading and advising us. Let the youth of the race be impressed about the dignity of labor and inspired with a desire to work. Let us do nothing to handicap children in the desperate struggle for existence in which their unfortunate condition in this country forces them to engage. Let us purify the atmosphere of our homes till it become so sweet that those who dwell in them will have a heritage more precious than great, more to be desired than silver or gold.

Mary Terrell's Nashville address was typical of the many talks she delivered around the turn of the 20th century, a time when the popular lecturer emerged as one of the most prominent African-American activists in the country. Her tone and ideas were generally conservative and consistent with prevailing notions about the proper role of women. They were also in line with her elite, sheltered upbringing. But Mary Terrell's ultimate goal was to accept nothing less than complete gender and racial equality. And as her disappointments mounted in both areas during the 20th century, she grew increasingly confrontational, battling segregation on picket lines and organizing sit-ins during the last years of her long life.

Mary Eliza Church was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 23, 1863, as the United States faced its greatest challenge, the Civil War. By 1860, Memphis was the sixth largest southern city, with a population of over 20,000, including about 4,000 blacks. Founded in 1819, the "Bluff city"—it stood on one of the Chickasaw Bluffs that rose over 100 feet above the Mississippi River—had grown from a rough frontier outpost to become the world's largest inland cotton market by the Civil War. During the rebellion, Memphis remained a prosperous commercial center. Occupied by Union forces, it nonetheless served as the center of illegal trade between the North and South.

The African-American population of Memphis expanded dramatically during the war, as refugees flooded the city. By 1870, the black population stood at over 15,000. The white population also increased during the period, but the rate of growth was only a third of that experienced by the African-American community. Thus Mary Church was born in an uncertain time in a place experiencing unsettling change, which created a period of both opportunity and danger for blacks. Her father Robert Reed Church, Sr., had been born a slave in 1839 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. His white father, Captain Charles B. Church, owned a fleet of Mississippi River boats. His mother, a house servant named Emmeline , had a limited impact on his upbringing because her owners moved from Holly Springs when Robert was young. Captain Church allowed his slave son to work as a dishwasher on his river boats, and later Robert became a steward in charge of purchasing. When the Union Navy gained control of the Mississippi River, putting the Captain's line out of business, father and son settled in Memphis. Robert, though technically still a slave, bought a saloon and hotel. He also began courting a local house servant, Louisa Ayers . Like the man she would marry, Louisa had never faced the harsh conditions a majority of slaves endured and, though not as light skinned as Robert, she could "pass" for white. Louisa had little experience with difficult physical labor and grew up as a close companion of her owner's daughter. She was well educated (even receiving French lessons) and well treated. When Robert and Louisa married, the Ayers family provided a trousseau from New York and an elaborate wedding reception.

The household where Bob and Louisa Church raised their young daughter Mollie, as Mary was usually called, was a sheltered, comfortable one. Terrell's house was a large, two-story home in the white section of town. Her friends were white, and she had no sense of having an inferior status based on race until she was five or six years old. She visited Captain Church on Sundays, though she did not know that the kindly man was actually her grandfather until she began to ask questions about his relationship to her father. Only when her maternal grandmother, Eliza Ayers , who was a great storyteller, began to relate some personal accounts of the horrors of slavery did young Terrell begin to appreciate her background. As the privileged girl would later note, "It nearly killed me to think that my dear grandmother, who I loved so devotedly, had once been a slave." Terrell was also greatly affected by an incident that took place when she was five years old. Traveling on a river boat with her father, who could pass for white whenever he wished, she was seated alone in the first-class car while her father went to the smoking car to socialize. As the conductor passed by he inquired, "Whose little nigger is this?," and pulled her from her seat. At this moment, her father returned to order the conductor to leave her alone. Her father consoled the frightened girl, but refused to explain the behavior of the conductor. Terrell's mother was equally reticent on the issue, which left the young girl confused and curious.

Robert and Louisa Church received their freedom on February 22, 1865, with the ratification of an amendment to the Tennessee state constitution abolishing slavery. Louisa had opened a successful "hair store" frequented by the wealthy women of Memphis, and Robert's saloon was thriving. But a year after the war ended, during the notorious Memphis Race Riot of May 1866, a group of policemen broke into Robert Church's saloon intent on robbing it. They shot him in the head and left him to die on the floor, but friends carried him home where he recovered from the wound. Robert Church would go on to make a fortune in Memphis real estate, build the largest theater for blacks in the country, and open a bank. By 1900, he was not only the richest African-American in Memphis, he may have been the nation's first black millionaire. He died in 1913, leaving daughter Mary with a considerable fortune.

Although she was certainly fortunate that her father recovered from the 1866 shooting, tragedy entered her young life in 1869 when her parents divorced. Louisa moved to New York where she started another successful hair business. In 1870, she enrolled her daughter in the integrated Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Here, Mary encountered little overt race discrimination, but she began to develop an appreciation of the history and present plight of others of her race. At the age of 12, she entered Oberlin College Academy, graduating in 1880. She then enrolled at Oberlin College, from which she graduated in 1884. Her academic achievements at both institutions were considerable. At Oberlin College, she pursued the rigorous classical course leading to the bachelor of arts degree, became freshman class poet, and edited the Oberlin Review. She was one of three black women who received the B.A. in the 1884 class. Though she encountered some discrimination because of her race, she later observed, "It would be difficult for a colored girl to go through a white school with fewer unpleasant experiences than I had."

Upon graduating in 1884, Mary Church told her father that she wished to return to Memphis to teach school. Appalled, Robert Church forbade his daughter to do so since "real ladies did not work." Instead, Mary took charge of his household for a year. But Robert Church remarried and Mary used this as an excuse to apply for teaching positions at black institutions. In spite of her father's threat of disinheritance, she accepted an offer to work at Wilber-force University in Ohio in 1885. Two years later, she moved to Washington, D.C., to teach Latin at one of the nation's leading black public schools, the M Street Colored High School.

Mary Church Terrell">

A White Woman has only one handicap to overcome—a great one, true, her sex; a colored woman faces two—her sex and her race.

—Mary Church Terrell

In 1888, Robert Church convinced Mary to travel and study in Europe for two years. She learned French, Italian, and German at local schools, toured cultural and historic sites, and enjoyed an environment where her African ancestry mattered little. A German baron, along with other acquaintances, proposed marriage. But Mary Church decided to return home because she knew she "would be much happier trying to promote the welfare of my race … working under certain hard conditions, than I would be living in a foreign land where I could enjoy freedom from prejudice." No doubt, her feelings for the chair of the M Street High School language department, Robert Heberton Terrell, also played a role in the fateful decision. One of the first African-Americans to graduate from Harvard, Robert Terrell would later become the first black to serve as a municipal court judge in the District of Columbia. Mary married Robert in 1891 at her father's home in what the New York Age called "the most notable event in colored society for years."

Marriage forced Mary Church Terrell to give up her teaching career and turn her attention to domestic duties. Put simply, social convention forced her to abandon the role for which she was well trained in return for one for which she was poorly suited. But she did not remain tied to the home for very long. During the 1890s, she served on Washington's Board of Education, won election as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, and became a professional lecturer for the Slayton Lyceum Bureau. According to all accounts, Terrell was a superb speaker who traveled extensively to promote racial understanding. In talks such as "A Bright Side of a Dark Subject," she avoided discussions of the worst evils of racism. She hoped that by emphasizing the past accomplishments of prominent African-Americans and characterizing the future in a positive light she could better influence white audiences.

Terrell's non-confrontational lecturing style was certainly consistent with her training and elite status. But this is not the sole reason why she soft-pedaled her message. She saw herself as a publicist for racial cooperation and understanding which she assumed represented a prerequisite for achieving racial equality. She also possessed a tremendous faith in education. African-Americans could be "uplifted" through education, while whites would come to accept notions of racial equality if they only knew more about the black community. She especially hoped to reach white women because she believed "it is the women of the country who mould public opinion" and who teach values to the next generation. An ardent woman's suffragist, Terrell also predicted that when the time came "that trades and avocations shall not be closed against men and women on account of race or color, then the day of proscription and prejudice will darken to dawn no more."

Mary Terrell also reached thousands of Americans through her writings in the popular press and newspapers. As in the case of her lectures, she directed her message at a popular audience. She wrote about countless subjects, including aspects of African-American history. She condemned lynching, attacked the debt peonage system that kept many Southern black farmers in a state of bondage not unlike slavery, and promoted woman's suffrage. Her prose could be uncompromising, but she was careful to avoid offending white readers when possible.

In spite of her exhausting work schedule which included extensive travel, Mary remained active even after the birth of her daughter Phyllis Terrell (named after the black poet Phillis Wheatley ) in 1898. Mary had lost her first three children within days of their births, but Phyllis enjoyed good health from the beginning. In 1904, the Terrells adopted a niece, Mary, then ten years old, and raised her as if she were their biological daughter. When Terrell was away on extended lecture tours, her mother Louisa usually looked after the children. Robert Terrell, who earned a law degree by attending classes at night

during the 1890s, supported his wife's activism in every possible way.

Before the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910, Mary Church Terrell tended to side with Booker T. Washington and the "Bookerites'" non-militant approach to achieving racial justice. But extensive exposure to Jim Crow laws in the South and the increasingly rigid segregation that overtook Washington, D.C., helped bring her to the founding meetings of the NAACP. She served on the organization's executive board and increasingly involved herself in direct-action tactics. In some ways, her view of tactics designed to achieve racial equality came to mirror those of W.E.B. Du Bois, but her husband's close identification with the Bookerites restrained her actions somewhat. On the woman's suffrage issue, however, she joined Alice Paul 's militant Woman's Party to picket the White House in 1919. Terrell would be very disappointed when the former suffrage movement turned its back on black women during the 1920s.

As one of the nation's most prominent and popular African-American activists, Mary Church Terrell was often in demand as a speaker or organization participant during the first half of the 20th century. She continued to write extensively, including an autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World (1940). She served on the executive board of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and was increasingly devoted to promoting internationalism. A lifelong Republican, in the 1920s and 1930s she worked for the Republican National Committee as director of Work among Colored Women in the East, and in other capacities. By the time she reached her 70s and 80s, she was honored at countless testimonials and given honorary doctorates.

Mary Terrell truly appreciated the admiration of a large number of Americans of all races, but she had no intention of resting on her laurels. Even at the age of 83, she was ready for new battles—maybe more ready than ever before. Her husband had died in 1925, her daughters were successful personally and professionally, and she had less and less to lose by making "public spectacles" of herself. So she addressed some new challenges. She applied for membership in the American Association of University Women and quickly received her expected rejection by this segregated organization. Noting that "I would be an arrant coward unless I opened the way for other colored women," she embarked on a three-year battle to break down the race barrier. After she succeeded in this campaign, she took on segregation in Washington eating establishments.

The District of Columbia had 1872 and 1873 laws on the books requiring "all eating-place proprietors to serve any respectable well-behaved person regardless of color." But the statutes had been illegally deleted from the District Code in the 1890s. A group of religious, social, and political leaders organized the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws (CCEAD) in 1949, and asked Mary Church Terrell to become honorary chair. Not well suited to mere "honorary" positions, Mary came to lead the organization in a dramatic campaign to get the old laws reinstated. When local officials dragged their feet, the organization pressed on in court. It also used direct-action tactics. On February 28, 1950, three African-Americans and one white activist sat down at the food counter of the segregated Thompson's Restaurant. This group included 87-year-old Mary Church Terrell. After they were forbidden by a cashier from paying for food, they convinced the District commissioners to prosecute the restaurant owner, John Thompson. A three-year legal battle ensued.

During this time, Terrell led sit-ins and picketing to publicize the case of District of Columbia v. John Thompson. Kresge's, Hecht's, and Murphy's department stores all backed down and desegregated their lunch counters. The Thompson case went to the Supreme Court in the spring of 1953 and as Mary Terrell awaited the verdict, the 89-year-old advocate of racial justice received threatening phone calls and hate mail. But on June 8, Terrell was given the news of a great victory. Chief Justice William O. Douglas delivered the favorable verdict—segregated eating establishments were unconstitutional in Washington, D.C.

Two months later, a great celebration was held, including a reception at the White House, commemorating the 90th birthday of Mary Church Terrell. A new International Reading Room was dedicated in her name at Howard University. In a speech she gave on that day, Terrell told an audience of 1,500: "it shall be the happiest day of my life when our schools are integrated." It was thus only fitting that one of the nation's greatest champions of racial justice and harmony was alive to celebrate this monumental legal victory when, on May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Alert and optimistic to the end, Mary Church Terrell died of cancer two months later at her summer home in Highland Beach, Maryland, on July 24, 1954.


Jones, Beverly Washington. Quest For Equality: The Life and Writings of Mary Eliza Church Terrell, 1863–1954. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1990.

Sterling, Dorothy. Black Foremothers: Three Lives. Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1979.

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

suggested reading:

Green, Constance. The Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation's Capital. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Sheppard, Gladys Byram. Mary Church Terrell—Respectable Person. Maryland: Human Relations Press, 1959.


Mary Church Terrell Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Mary Church Terrell Papers, Moorland Spingarn Collection, Howard University, Washington, D.C.

John M. Craig , Professor of History, Slippery Rock University, Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, author of Lucia Ames Mead and the American Peace Movement and numerous articles on activist American women