|Mary Church Terrell|
September 23, 1863
Memphis, Tennessee, U.S.
|Died||July 24, 1954
Annapolis, Maryland, U.S.
|Other names||Euphemia Kirk|
|Occupation||Civil rights activist|
|Known for||One of the first African-American women to earn a college degree|
|Parent(s)||Robert Reed Church
Mary Church Terrell (September 23, 1863 - July 24, 1954) was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, and became known as a national activist for civil rights and suffrage. She taught in the Latin Department at the M Street school (now known as Paul Laurence Dunbar High School)--the first African American public high school in the nation--in Washington, DC. In 1896, she was the first African-American woman in the United States to be appointed to the school board of a major city, serving in the District of Columbia until 1906. Terrell was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909) and the Colored Women's League of Washington (1894). She also helped found the National Association of Colored Women (1896) and served as its first national president, and she also was a founding member of the National Association of College Women (1910).
Mary Church Terrell was born Mary Church in 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee, to Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers, both freed slaves of mixed racial ancestry. Her parents were prominent members of the black elite of Memphis after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction Era. Her paternal grandmother was of Malagasy and white descent and her paternal grandfather was the Captain Charles B. Church, a white steamship owner and operator from Virginia who allowed his son Robert Church--Mary's father--to keep the wages he earned as a steward on his ship. The younger Church continued to accumulate wealth by investing in real estate, and purchased his first property in Memphis in 1862. He made his fortune by buying property after the city was depopulated following the 1878 yellow fever epidemic. He is considered to be the first African-American millionaire in the South.
Mary's mother, Louisa Ayers, is believed to be one of the first African American women to establish and maintain a hair salon, frequented by well-to-do residents of Memphis. All in all, Ayers was a successful entrepreneur at a time when most women did not own businesses. She is credited with having encouraged her daughter to attend Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for elementary and secondary education, because the Memphis schools were not adequate.
Mary Church, known to members of her family as "Mollie," and a brother were born during their father's first marriage, which ended in divorce. Their half-siblings, Robert, Jr. and Annette, were born to their father's second wife, Anna Church, née Anna Wright, during his second marriage. Robert Church later married a third time.
Mary Church later majored in Classics at Oberlin College--which was among the first colleges to accept African American and female students. She was one of the first African American women to attend the institution. The freshman class nominated her as class poet, and she was elected to two of the college's literary societies. She also served as an editor of The Oberlin Review. When she earned her bachelor's degree in 1884, she was one of the first African-American women to do so. She went on to earn a master's degree from Oberlin, graduating in 1888.
Church started her career in Education teaching at Wilberforce College, an historically black college founded collaboratively by the Methodist Church in Ohio and the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the state. She later moved to Washington, D.C. to accept a position in the Latin Department at the M. Street School. After teaching for a time, Church studied in Europe for two years, where she became fluent in French, German, and Italian.
On October 18, 1891, in Memphis, Church married Robert Heberton Terrell, a lawyer who became the first black municipal court judge in Washington, DC. The couple had met in Washington, DC, then they both worked at the M Street High School, where he became principal.
Terrell and her husband had three children who died in infancy; their daughter Phyllis was the only one to survive to adulthood. Phyllis was named after Phillis Wheatley. The Terrells later adopted a second daughter, Mary.
Historians have generally emphasized Terrell's role as an activist--civil rights and women's rights--and community leader during the Progressive Era. She became cognizant of women's rights while at Oberlin, where she became familiar with Susan B. Anthony's activism. She also had a prosperous career as a journalist (she identified as a writer). Using the pen name "Euphemia Kirk," she 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 with the broader struggle of black women and black people 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
Through her father, Terrell met activist Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, director of the influential Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. She was especially close with Douglass and worked with him on several civil rights campaigns. Shortly after her marriage to Robert Terrell, she considered retiring from activism to focus on family life. Douglass, making the case that her talent was too immense to go unused, persuaded her to stay in public life.
In 1896, Terrell became the first president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women (NACW), whose members established day nurseries and kindergartens, and helped orphans. That same year, she 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 were included in the Washington, DC public schools.
Combined with her achievements as a principal, the success of the League's educational initiatives led to Terrell's appointment 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. She was also an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She was particularly concerned that the organization continue fighting for suffrage among black women. With Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, she formed the Federation of Afro-American Women.
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. She received an enthusiastic ovation when she honored the host nation by delivering her address in German. She delivered the speech in French, and concluded with the English version.
In 1909, Terrell was one of two black women (journalist 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), becoming a founding member. In 1913-14, 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), Terrell was involved with the War Camp Community Service, which supported recreation for servicemen. Later it aided in issues related to the demobilization of Negro servicemen. As World War I was winding down, Terrell and her daughter Phyllis joined Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CUWS), to picket the White House on issues related to the need of black veterans for jobs. Terrell was a delegate to the International Peace Conference after the end of the war. While in England, she stayed with H. G. Wells and his wife at their invitation.
Terrell worked actively in the women's suffrage movement, which pushed for enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States 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; Terrell reportedly said of the party: "Every right that has been bestowed upon blacks was initiated by the Republican Party." However, the Democrat-controlled Southern states from 1890 to 1908 had passed voter registration and election laws that effectively disfranchised most blacks. Those restrictions were not fully overturned until after congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Terrell wrote an autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World (1940).
In 1950, she 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, 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, representing Thompson, 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.
She lived to see the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, holding unconstitutional the racial segregation of public schools. Terrell 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.