Mary Church Terrell (September 23, 1863 – July 24, 1954), 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 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 the M Street School, a top academic high school, where Terrell taught and became a principal.
Mary had three children who died in infancy, but finally had a daughter who survived, whom she named 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, 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 to obtain 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 became included in the Washington public schools. The success of the League's educational initiatives led to her appointment to the District of Columbia Board of Education.
Historians have generally emphasized Terrell's role as an activist and community leader during the Progressive Era. She also had a prosperous career as a journalist (she simply called herself a writer). Using the pen name "Euphemia Kirk," Terrell published in both the black and white press to promote 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). She also contributed to the Washington Evening Star and the Washington Post (Terrell, 1940). She aligned the African-American Women's Club Movement and the overall struggle of black women and the black race for equality. In 1892 she was elected as the first woman president of the prominent Washington DC black debate organization Bethel Literary and Historical Society
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 black woman (Ida B. Wells-Barnett was the other) invited to sign the “Call” and to attend the first organizational meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where she became a founding member. In 1913-1914, she helped organize the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. More than a quarter century later, she helped write its creed that set up a code of conduct for black women.
In World War I (WWI), she was involved with the War Camp Community Service, which aided in recreation for and, later, the demobilization of Negro servicemen. As WWI was winding down, Terrell and her daughter Phyllis joined Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, of the Congressional Union of Woman Suffrage (CUWS), to picket the White House on issues related to the demobilization of Negro servicemen and need for jobs. Terrell was a delegate to the International Peace Conference after the end of the war. While in England, Terrell stayed with Mr. and Mrs. H.G. Wells.
Terrell worked actively in the womens' 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 and the first election in which all American women were given 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, A Colored Woman in a White World (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 the segregated Thompson Restaurant. When 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 in Anne Arundel General Hospital. It was the week before the NACW was to hold its annual meeting, that year at her town of Annapolis, Maryland.
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