Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell was a pioneer civil rights activist in the early twentieth century; she was among the first African-American women to earn a college degree and fought for suffrage and civil rights all through her life. Mary Church Terrell was born Mary Eliza Church on September 1963. She was the daughter of recently emancipated slaves; her father, Robert Church, operated a saloon while her mother, Louisa Ayers Church had been a well-traveled and educated house servant.
Compared to the majority of African Americans residing in the United States of America during the nineteenth century, the Churches’ lived a relatively comfortable life in a white neighborhood. Together with her younger brother, Mary Church had many white friends and was completely oblivious to the race line issues in America.
A pivotal moment in Mary Church’s young life was her conversations with her maternal grandmother; in these conversations, Mary came to understand the nature of America’s slave history. Mary’s maternal grandmother was a former slave and faced firsthand the brutal treatment of slave owners. In her book, A Colored Woman in a White World, Mary Church Terrell describes how her grandmother's tales about life as a slave brought her to tears and ignited in her passion for fighting for the cause of the African American.
When Mary Church Terrell was six years old, her parents divorced, and her mother opened a hair salon in New York. Mary’s parents decided to let her live with her mother because educational opportunities for African American children were better in New York than in Memphis where she was born. In New York, Mary Church Terrell was one of a few African-American children, and her classmates often ridiculed her. The ridicule that Mary faced in school only hardened her resolve to prove that Whites were no better than African Americans and thus deserved equal rights.
Mary Church Terrell attended Oberlin high school in Ohio and enrolled at Oberlin College where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree. After her graduation, Mary Church Terrell moved back to Memphis where her father, Robert Church had become wealthy by buying cheap land during an epidemic and building a real estate empire.
In Memphis, Mary Church Terrell looked forward to a teaching career; Mary saw a teaching career as a unique opportunity to promote the welfare of her race and agitate for civil rights. Mary Church Terrell's father was opposed to her daughter working and wanted her to remain in Memphis and Marry. Mary took a teaching job at Wilberforce University to her father's chagrin.
Mary moved to Washington DC in 1887 where she became a Latin teacher at M Street Colored High School. After a year of teaching, Mary’s father sent her to Europe to further her education. In Europe, Mary spent two years moving between France, Germany, and Italy; Mary fell in love with the way of life and freedom from racial discrimination. For a brief period, Mary seriously considered living in Europe but in her autobiography, Mary noted that she would be much happier trying to improve the welfare of African Americans in the United States of America (Terrell).
Mary eventually returned to M Street School where she met Robert Terrell. Robert was one of the first African Americans to graduate from Harvard University. Mary and Robert married in 1891, and the newlywed couple built their home in Washington DC where Robert Terrell attended law school and eventually became the first African American Municipal Judge in the capitol city (Terrell).
Mary’s first years in marriage were full of illness and disappointment, Mary was often sick and lost three babies within five years. In 1897, Mary gave birth to a healthy girl named Phyllis; the couple also adopted Mary’s ten-year-old niece.
Mary Church Terrell devoted most of her life to agitating for the welfare of African Americans and Women. Mary Church Terrell's public service began with her appointment to the Washington D.C school board as the first African-American woman to serve in that capacity. Mary was a member of the Washington D.C school board from 1895 to 1901 and again from 1906 to 1911 (Terrell).
Mary Church Terrell together and her husband were staunch advocates of women rights and frequently marched in front of the White House and Capitol Hill. Mary was a common participant in the National American Woman Suffrage Association; the group’s leader, Susan B. Anthony, invited Mary Church Terrell to give talks on women’s suffrage and race line issues in the United States of America (Terrell). Mary Church Terrell was an efferent and effective activist and speaker.
The United States Congress passed the 19th amendment to the constitution; this amendment gave women the right to vote, a big success for women’s suffrage. Soon after the amendment became law, the Republican Party named Mary Church Terrell as the director of Colored Women of the East; in this capacity, Mary’s role included organizing efforts in eastern states to encourage colored women to use their right to vote (Jones).
Mary eventually founded the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and became a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mary Church Terrell’s active activism helped to increase awareness about the state of the African American Woman (Jones).
Mary Church Terrell’s oratory skills earned her a position at Slayton Lyceum Bureau as the organization's professional lecturer. Mary traveled extensively throughout the east and south enlightening the people on the achievements of African American women and advocating for greater education and justice for all African Americans. Mary was particularly opposed to the common practice of lynching. Mary Church Terrell was also a frequent contributor to newspaper articles in which she highlighted civil rights issues.
The American south during the early nineteenth century was an inhospitable place for African American women. Often, Mary had to use her light skin tone to pass off as a white woman; despite this, Mary often faced many challenges, as she could not eat in certain restaurants, sleep in certain hotels, or even travel in Pullman cars (Jones).
Mary was also a devoted mother, and never stayed away from home for more than three weeks. Mary’s mother lived with them for 15 years and helped to take care of the children when Mary was away. Mary’s daughters graduated from college and became teachers (Terrell).
One of the pinnacle moments of Mary’s career came when she gave a speech at the international congress of women in Berlin, Germany in 1904. Mary’s speech helped raise awareness about race line issues in the United States of America (Broussard). In 1919, Mary gave another speech at the International Congress of Women where she was the only colored woman in attendance; Mary represented all the non-white countries of the world.
Unlike her parents, Mary’s marriage to Robert Terrell survived numerous hardships and only ended when Robert Terrell suffered a stroke and died when Mary Church was 62 years old. In 1937, Mary Church faced loss again when her brother died, and she was left to care after her ten-year-old Nephew (Terrell).
Mary Church Terrell published her autobiography “A Colored Woman in a White World." In the book, Mary Church describes her experiences as an activist for women’s suffrage and civil rights in the United States of America (Jones). Mary’s autobiography outlined the prejudice she faced in every aspect of her life and the challenges she had to overcome.
As Mary Church Terrell became older, she was more vocal in her fight for the rights of African Americans. Mary gave a speech in Congress in 1946 where she agitated for the passage of an anti-lynching bill.
Mary’s activism intensified when she was invited to be the honorary chairperson of the committee for the enforcement of the anti-discrimination law in Washington DC. Mary Church Terrell was not content with the honorary position and became the group's chairperson; Mary was actively involved in the group's activities where she presided over meetings and spoke at rallies (Terrell).
Mary continued her activism until she was 90 years old where her birthday was marked with a white house reception and attended by over 700 people. Mary died on July 24, 1957; thousands of people paid their respects (Jones).
Broussard, Jinx C. "Mary Church Terrell: A black woman journalist and activist seek to elevate her race." American Journalism (2002): 13-35. Document.
Jones, Beverly Washington. The quest for equality: The life and writings of Mary Eliza Church Terrell 1863-1954 Vol. 13. Carlson Pub, 1990. book.
Quigley, Joan. Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation's Capital. Oxford University Press, 2015. book.
Terrell, Mary Church. A Colored Woman in a White World. Ransdell Inc, 1940. Book .
Wilks, Jennifer. "The French and Swiss Diaries of Mary Church Terrell, 1888–89: Introduction and Annotated Translation." A Journal of Women, Gender, and the Black International (2014): 8-32. Document.