Mary Church Terrell

Biography and Facts

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

Born Mary Eliza Church, Mary Church Terrell (September 23, 1863 – July 24, 1954) was a key pioneer in the intersectional movements for civil rights and suffrage. As both an educator and activist, she was an important figure in the advancement of the civil rights cause.

Early Life

Mary Church Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1863 - the same year that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Both of her parents were former slaves who became successful in business: her mother, Louisa, owned a successful hair salon, and her father, Robert, became one of the first African-American millionaires in the South. 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. Two of her fellow students, Anna Julia Cooper and Ida Gibbs Hunt, would become her lifelong friends, colleagues, and allies in the movement for racial and gender equality.

Mary moved back to Memphis to live with her father. He 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; however, 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 a high school for black students in Washington, D.C.

Family and Early Activism

In Washington, Mary renewed her friendship with her supervisor at the school, Robert Heberton Terrell. They married in 1891. As was expected at the time, Mary 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.

The first three children Mary bore died shortly after birth. Her daughter, Phyllis, was born in 1898, and the couple adopted their daughter Mary a few years later. In the meantime, Mary 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 became a friend of hers. Mary also worked for kindergartens and child care, especially for children of working mothers.

Mary entered activism more fiercely after the 1892 lynching of her friend Thomas Moss, a black business owner who was attacked by white businessmen for competing with their businesses. Her theory of activism was based on the idea of "uplift," or the idea that discrimination could be tackled by social advancement and education, with the belief that the advancement of one member of the community could advance the whole community.

Excluded from full participation in planning with other women for activities at the 1893 World's Fair, Mary instead 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.

Founder and Icon

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. Her success in that post was rooted in her earlier activism with the NACW and its partner organizations, which worked on education initiatives focused on black women and children, from nurseries to adult women in the workforce. 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. Though Mary was able to vote, many other black men and women were not, due to laws in the South that essentially disenfranchised black voters. Widowed when her husband died in 1925, Mary Church Terrell continued her lecturing, volunteer work, and activism, briefly considering a second marriage.

Activist Until The End

Even as she entered retirement age, Mary continued her work for women's rights and race relations. In 1940, she published her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, which described her personal experiences with discrimination.

In her last years, she picketed and worked in the campaign to end segregation in Washington, D.C., where she joined the fight against restaurant segregation despite already being in her mid-eighties. Mary lived to see this fight won in their favor: in 1953, the courts ruled that segregated eating places were unconstitutional.

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 and which focused on education as a key means of advancing the civil rights she spent her life fighting for.

Mary Church Terrell Fast Facts

Born: September 23, 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee

Died: July 24, 1954 in Annapolis, Maryland

Spouse: Robert Heberton Terrell (m. 1891-1925)

Children: Phyllis (only surviving biological child) and Mary (adopted daughter)

Key Accomplishments: An early civil rights leader and women's rights advocate, she was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree. She went on to be a founder of National Association of Colored Women and a charter member of the NAACP

Occupation: educator, activist, professional lecturer

Sources

  • Church, Mary Terrell. A Colored Woman in a White World. Washington, DC: Ransdell, Inc. Publishers, 1940.
  • Jones, B. W. "Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women: 1986-1901," The Journal of Negro History, vol. 67 (1982), 20–33.
  • Michals, Debra. "Mary Church Terrell." National Women's History Museum, 2017, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mary-church-terrell