Life Story: Mary Church TerrellJosh Balasa2021-04-22T08:59:07-04:00
Life Story: Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)
Championing Suffrage and Civil Rights
The story of a lifelong activist who advocated for suffrage and equal rights on local, national, and international stages.
Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell, 1902. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division, The New York Public Library. “Mrs. Mary Church Terrell” New York Public Library Digital Collections.
Mary Eliza Church was born on September 23, 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee. Her parents, Robert Church and Louisa Ayers, were formerly enslaved. By the time Mary was born, they were both highly successful small-business owners. Robert was a real estate investor, and Louisa owned a popular hair salon.
Mary’s parents insisted that she and her younger brother receive the best possible education. They sent Mary to the Antioch College Model School in Ohio when she was eight years old because they felt the schools in Memphis were not good enough.
As one of the few Black students at the school, Mary frequently faced racism, particularly from older students. She channeled her anger and humiliation into a world view that would shape her entire life. She reflected on how awful it felt to be judged by the color of her skin and committed herself to living a life of tolerance toward all races.
After graduating high school, Mary enrolled at Oberlin College. She was one of only two Black women in her class. Although she continued to face racism, she also found Oberlin to be a welcoming place where she was frequently treated the same as her white counterparts. Oberlin offered many classes specifically for women, but Mary frequently enrolled in the more academically rigorous classes intended for men. She studied a variety of topics, with a focus on writing.
After earning an undergraduate and a graduate degree, Mary taught French, writing, reading, and geology for two years at Wilberforce University, a private, historically Black university in Wilberforce, Ohio. She then taught Latin at the prestigious M Street Colored High School in Washington, D.C. While there, she married fellow teacher Robert Terrell.
After marriage, Mary left the teaching profession to pursue work in the social reform world. Mary was an effective leader who brought activists together and fostered collective advocacy around issues she cared deeply about.
In 1892, Mary founded the Colored Women’s League for Washington, D.C. The League provided night classes for women, childcare for working mothers, and kindergarten classes for Black children. Mary’s interest in helping Black mothers and children stemmed from her own personal experiences. Three of her four children died in infancy, and she firmly believed their deaths were caused by the poor medical treatment available to Black citizens. Mary worked to create organizations like the Colored Women’s League to help Black mothers have better access to care and support.
In 1895, the Board of Education for Washington, D.C. appointed Mary as their first Black member. In that role, which she held for eleven years, she visited schools, raised funds, and encouraged schools to celebrate Frederick Douglass Day, a precursor to today’s Black History Month.
In 1896, she was named the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), a new organization that was formed through the combination of multiple women’s clubs, including the Colored Women’s League. As a national federation of local Black women’s clubs, NACW created unity across the Black reform movement and promoted respect for all Black women.
Suffrage was a primary focus of NACW and a common theme across all of Mary’s volunteer work. She strongly believed that real change would only be achieved once women had the vote. She joined the National American Women Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and built a friendship with Susan B. Anthony. She was one of the few Black members of the organization. Mary spoke out frequently to inform suffrage leaders that not all suffragists were white and that Black women needed to be included in the effort. In 1900, Mary spoke at the NAWSA convention and publicly denounced the racism within the suffrage movement. She showed those in attendance the importance of solidarity among women activists of all races.
Mary had a reputation as a powerful speaker. She traveled nationally and internationally, spreading her message of human rights. In 1904, she spoke at the International Congress of Women in Berlin, Germany. She was the only Black woman in attendance. She gave her speech in French, German, and English. The audience was so impressed by her mastery of three languages that they gave her a huge ovation when she was done.
She reflected on how awful it felt to be judged by the color of her skin and committed herself to living a life of tolerance toward all races.
Mary saw herself as a woman activist and a Black activist and addressed the challenges Black women faced as members of two critically important interest groups. Mary knew that she faced hurdles because of her race and her gender, and worked hard to disprove people’s expectations. As a leader in the civil rights movement, Mary was one of sixty prominent leaders to endorse the NAACP at its founding in 1909 and helped found the Washington, D.C. branch. In 1940, she published her memoir, A Colored Woman in a White World.
Never one to be deterred, Mary remained politically active into her eighties. In 1946, she applied to reinstate her membership in the American Association of University Women, which she had let lapse many years earlier. Mary genuinely wished to be a part of this prestigious organization of college-educated women, but she also wanted to test the organization’s tolerance of Black members. When her application was denied, she sued the organization. She fought for two years until her membership was reinstated in 1948 and the organization changed its policies to include people of color as members. She later said that not paving the way for other college-educated women of color would have been cowardly.
In 1949, Mary was invited by her friend Annie Stein to become the chairwoman of the newly formed Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the District of Columbia Anti-Discrimination Laws. (CCEAD). The Anti-Discrimination Laws were a series of laws passed in the 1870s meant to end discrimination against Black citizens in Washington, D.C. The laws, however, had never been properly enforced.
Under Mary’s leadership, CCEAD successfully fought to end segregation in restaurants, movie theaters, and other public places. Mary personally organized picket lines, sometimes with up to 100 participants, to protest racist businesses for weeks or months at a time. On her ninetieth birthday, Mary took a group of activist friends to the movies, expecting resistance. To her surprise, they were able to enjoy the movie in peace. Knowing that businesses were actually starting to accept Black customers was the perfect birthday gift for Mary.
A few weeks later, the Black community in Washington, D.C., threw Mary a ninetieth birthday luncheon. Over 700 people attended, including representatives from President Eisenhower’s staff. During the party, guests announced the creation of the Mary Church Terrell Fund, a charity that raised money to end Jim Crow discrimination in Washington, D.C.
Mary died in July 1954, less than two months after Brown v. Board of Education paved the way for far-reaching integration. At the time, she was still fighting against segregation in the nation’s capital, with a specific focus on schools and places of work.
advocacy: The act of publicly supporting a cause and promoting an idea or opinion.
Brown v. Board of Education: A 1954 Supreme Court Case in which the Court ruled that laws that allowed for “separate but equal” education for students of different races were a violation of the Constitution.
humiliation: Severe embarrassment.
ovation: Loud applause.
precursor: Something that comes before something else.
rigorous: Challenging and intense.
segregation: Separating people by race, class, or ethnic group.
suffrage: The right of voting; in this era, suffrage often referred specifically to woman suffrage, or the right of women to vote.
How did the racism Mary faced as a young student shape her outlook on life and her work as an educator and activist?
Mary is most recognized for her suffrage work. Why is it important to also study her life and work after the Nineteenth Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was passed?
How did both gender and race shape Mary’s experience as an activist? How might her experience have differed from the white female or Black male activists around her?
Study the intergenerational impact of slavery and Black citizens’ ability to overcome it. Combine Mary’s life story with the life stories of Maggie Walker, Ida B. Wells, and Madam C.J. Walker, all of whom had parents who were formerly enslaved.
Investigate higher education opportunities for women in the Progressive Era. Read Mary’s life story in conjunction with the life stories of Jane Addams and Ellen Swallow Richards, who also graduated from college. How did their education shape their careers and personal lives?
ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE; AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP; POWER AND POLITICS
New-York Historical Society Curriculum Library Connections
For more resources relating to women, suffrage, and modern life in the early twentieth century, seeThe Armory Show at 100.