Mary Church Terrell

Biography and Facts

Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell. Stock Montage/Getty Images

Mary Church Terrell Facts:

Known for: early civil rights leader; women's rights advocate, founder of National Association of Colored Women, charter member of the NAACP
Occupation: educator, activist, professional lecturer
Dates: September 23, 1863 - July 24, 1954
Also known as: Mary Eliza Church Terrell, Mollie (childhood name)

Mary Church Terrell Biography:

Mary Church Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, the same year that president Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Her mother was a hair salon operator. The family lived in a mostly-white neighborhood, and the young Mary was protected in her early years from most experience of racism, even though, when she was three, her father was shot during the Memphis race riots of 1866. It was not until she was five, hearing stories from her grandmother about slavery, that she began to be conscious of African American history.

Her parents divorced in 1869 or 1870, and her mother first had custody of both Mary and her brother. In 1873, the family sent her north to Yellow Springs and then Oberlin for school. Terrell split her summers between visiting her father in Memphis and her mother where she had moved, New York City. Terrell graduated from Oberlin College, Ohio, one of the few integrated colleges in the country, in 1884, where she had taken the "gentleman's course" rather than the easier, shorter women's program.

Mary Church Terrell moved back to Memphis to live with her father, who had become wealthy, in part by buying up properties cheaply when people fled the yellow fever epidemic in 1878-1879. Her father opposed her working; when he remarried, Mary accepted a teaching position in Xenia, Ohio, and then another in Washington, DC. After completing her masters degree at Oberlin while living in Washington, she spent two years traveling in Europe with her father. In 1890, she returned to teach at the Washington, DC, school.

In Washington, she renewed her friendship with her supervisor at the school, Robert Heberton Terrell. They married in 1891. As was expected, Mary Church Terrell left her employment upon marriage. Robert Terrell was admitted to the bar in 1883 in Washington and, from 1911 to 1925, taught law at Howard University. He served as a judge of the District of Columbia Municipal Court from 1902 to 1925.

More About Mary Church Terrell:

The first three children Terrell bore died shortly after birth. Her daughter, Phyllis, was born in 1898. In the meantime, Mary Church Terrell had become very active in social reform and volunteer work, including working with black women's organizations and for women's suffrage in the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Susan B. Anthony and she became friends. Terrell also worked for kindergartens and child care, especially for children of working mothers.

Excluded from full participation in planning with other women for activities at the 1893 World's Fair, Mary Church Terrell threw her efforts into building up black women's organizations that would work to end both gender and racial discrimination. She helped engineer the merger of black women's clubs to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. She was its first president, serving in that capacity until 1901, when she was appointed honorary president for life.

During the 1890s, Mary Church Terrell's increasing skill in and recognition for public speaking led her to take up lecturing as a profession. She became a friend of and worked with W.E.B. DuBois, and he invited her to become one of the charter members when the NAACP was founded.

Mary Church Terrell also served on the Washington, DC, school board, from 1895 to 1901 and again from 1906 to 1911, the first African American woman to serve on that body. In 1910, she helped found the College Alumni Club or College Alumnae Club.

In the 1920s, Mary Church Terrell worked with the Republican National Committee on behalf of women and African Americans. (She voted Republican until 1952, when she voted for Adlai Stevenson for president.) Widowed when her husband died in 1925, Mary Church Terrell continued her lecturing, volunteer work, and activism, briefly considering a second marriage.

She continued her work for women's rights and race relations, and in 1940 published her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World. In her last years, she picketed and worked in the campaign to end discrimination in Washington, DC.

Mary Church Terrell died in 1954, just two months after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a fitting "bookend" to her life which began just after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Background, Family:

  • Father: Robert Reed Church, employed by his (white) father, a riverboat captain; later successful in real estate
  • Mother: Louisa Ayres Church, hair salon operator
  • One younger brother


  • Public schools in Memphis
  • Antioch College Model School, Yellow Springs, Ohio
  • Yellow Springs public schools
  • Oberlin High School, Oberlin, Ohio, graduated 1879
  • Oberlin College, B.A., 1884
  • Oberlin College, M.A., 1888

Marriage, Children:

  • husband: Robert Heberton Terrell (married 1891; graduate of Harvard University; attorney and judge)
  • children: Phyllis, born 1898
  • three earlier children died shortly after birth


  • Wilberforce College, Ohio, 1885
  • Colored High School (later M Street High School), Washington, DC, 1886-1888, 1890-1891
  • Slayton Lyceum Bureau, position as lecturer


  • Colored Women's League, Washington, DC
  • National Association of Colored Women (NACW), founder
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, charter member
  • International Congress of Women
  • Association for the Study of Negro Life and History
  • College Alumni Club or College Alumnae Club, founded in 1910; evolved into the National Association of College Women (not be confused with the National Association of Colored Women, also founded by Terrell) - this became the National Association of University Women in 1974
  • American Association of University Women (membership rejected in 1946, accepted in 1949)

Friends included: 

Mary McLeod Bethune, Susan B. Anthony, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass

Religion: Congregational