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Mary Church Terrell
September 23, 1863 – July 24, 1954
Educator, Journalist and Civil Rights Activist


Mary Church Terrell, daughter of two former slaves, was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree. She became an activist who led several important associations and helped to work for civil rights and suffrage.

Mary was born in Memphis, Tennessee to Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers, both former slaves. Robert Church was said to be the son of his white master, Charles Church. He reputedly became a self-made millionaire from real-estate investments in Memphis and was married twice. When Mary was six years old, her parents sent her to the Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio for her elementary and secondary education. Mary, known to members of her family as "Mollie," and her brother were born during the first marriage to her mother, which terminated in divorce. Robert, Jr., and his sister, Annette, were born during the second marriage to Anna (Wright) Church.

When Mary majored in classes at Oberlin College, she was an African-American woman among mostly white male students. Still, the freshman class elected her as class poet, and she was elected to two of the college's literary societies. Mary also served as an editor of the Oberlin Review. When she earned her bachelor's degree in 1884, she was one of the first African-American women known to have earned a college degree. Mary continued on to earn a master's degree from Oberlin in 1888.

Mary Church taught at a black secondary school in Washington, DC and at Wilberforce College, an historically black college founded by the Methodist Church in Ohio. She studied in Europe for two years, where she became fluent in French, German, and Italian.

On October 18, 1891 in Memphis, Mary married Robert Heberton Terrell, a lawyer who became the first black municipal court judge in Washington, DC. The couple met through M Street School, where Terrell taught and became a principal.

Mary had three children who died in infancy but soon gave birth to a daughter Phyllis. The Terrells later adopted a second daughter, Mary.

Through her father, Mary met Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. She was especially close to Douglass and worked with him on several civil rights campaigns. Shortly after her marriage to Robert Terrell (as she described in her autobiography), she considered retiring from activism to settle down. It was Douglass who persuaded her that her talents required her to do otherwise.

As a high school teacher and principal, Mary Church Terrell was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education, 1895-1906. She was the first black woman in the United States to hold such a position. Terrell was also an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She was particularly concerned about ensuring the organization continued to fight for black women obtaining the vote. With Josephine St.Pierre Ruffin, she formed the Federation of Afro-American Women. In 1896, Terrell became the first president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. The NACWC members established day nurseries and kindergartens, and helped orphans. In 1896, Terrell also founded the National Association of College Women, which later became the National Association of University Women (NAUW). The League started a training program and kindergarten before these were incorporated in the Washington Public School System. The Success of the League's educational initiatives led to her appointment to the District of Columbia Board of Education. Mrs. Terrell was the first Black woman in the United States to serve in this position. In 1896, Mary Church Terrell became the founder and first president of the National Association of Colored Women, a national organization of Black women's club.

Although written sources about Terrell primarily highlight her role as an activist and clubwoman during the progressive era, it is important to note that she had an active and prosperous career as a journalist (although she more often referred to herself as a "writer"). Often writing under the pen name of "Euphemia Kirk," Terrell utilized both black and white press outlets to communicate the message of the African American Women's Club Movement (Terrell,1940). She wrote for a variety of newspapers "published either by or in the interest of colored people (Terrell, 1940, p. 222)," such as the A.M.E. Church Review of Philadelphia, PA; the Southern Workman of Hampton, VA; the Indianapolis Freeman;the Afro-American of Baltimore; the Washington Tribune; the Chicago Defender; the New York Age; the Voice of the Negro; the Women's World; and the Norfolk Journal and Guide (Terrell, 1940). The white publications she contributed to include the Washington Evening Star and the Washington Post (Terrell,1940). In all her publications, Terrell communicated a consistent message that effectively and decisively aligned with that of the African American Women's Club Movement and the overall struggle of black women and the black race for equality.

In 1904 Terrell was invited to speak at the International Congress of Women, held in Berlin, Germany. She was the only black woman at the conference. Terrell received an enthusiastic ovation when she honored the host nation by delivering her address in German. She then proceeded to deliver the speech in French, and concluded with the English version.

In 1909, Mary Terrell was one of two Negro woman (Ida B. Wells-Barnett was the other) invited to sign the “Call” and to attend the organizational meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), thus becoming a founding member. In 1913-1914, she helped organize the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, and twenty-six years later wrote its famous creed, setting up a code of conduct for Negro women.

In World War I, she was involved with the War Camp Community Service, which aided in the recreation and, later, the demobilization of Negro servicemen. As the First World War was winding down, Terrell and her daughter Phyllis joined Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, of the Congressional Union of Woman Suffrage (CUWS), in picketing the White House on issues related to the demobilization of Negro servicemen. A celebrity in both America and Europe, Terrell was a delegate to the International Peace Conference after the end of the First World War. While in England, Terrell stayed with Mr. and Mrs. H.G. Wells.

Terrell worked actively in the suffrage movement, which pushed for enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Active in the Republican Party, she was president of the Women's Republican League during Warren G. Harding's 1920 presidential campaign. This was the first election in which all American women were given the right to vote. While the constitutional amendment gave women the right to vote, in the former Confederacy, Southern states had earlier passed voter registration and election rules that still effectively disfranchised most blacks. Those restrictions were not fully overturned until the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

Terrell wrote an autobiography entitled A Colored Woman in a White World, which was published in 1940.

In 1950 Terrell started what would be a successful fight to integrate eating places in the District of Columbia. In the 1890s the District of Columbia had formalized segregation as did states in the South. Before then, local integration laws dating to the 1870s had required all eating-place proprietors to serve any respectable, well-behaved person regardless of color, or face a $1,000 fine and forfeiture of their license.

In 1949, Dr. Terrell and colleagues Clark F. King, Essie Thompson, and Arthur F. Elmer entered segregated Thompson Restaurant. When they were refused service, they promptly filed a lawsuit. Attorney Ringgold Hart argued, on April 1, 1950, that the District laws were unconstitutional and later won the case against restaurant segregation. In the three years pending a decision in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Terrell targeted other restaurants. Her tactics included boycotts, picketing, and sit-ins. Finally, on June 8, 1953, the court ruled that segregated eating places in Washington, DC, were unconstitutional.

After the age of 80, Terrell continued to participate in picket lines, protesting the segregation of restaurants and theaters. During her senior years, she also succeeded in persuading the local chapter of the American Association of University Women to admit black members.

Terrell lived to see the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, holding unconstitutional the segregation of schools by race. She died two months later at the age of 90, on July 24, 1954, a week before the NACW was to hold its annual meeting in Washington at her home in Annapolis, Maryland at Anne Arundel General Hospital. A short distance from her summer home in Highland Beach.

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