Mary Church Terrell

Past and present leaders of the National Association of Colored Women, circa 1950-1960. Left to right are Mary McLeod Bethune, Julia West Hamilton,Ella P. Stewart, and Mary Church Terrell (first president, 1896 to 1904). 

This story was originally published on Jan. 5, 2022 by the Ohio History Connection. Richland Source has entered into a collaborative agreement with the Ohio History Connection to share content across our sites.

Writer, suffragist and Black activist Mary Church Terrell was born Sept. 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee. Daughter to enslaved Louisa Ayers and Robert Reed Church, Terrell and her parents were freed following the end of the Civil War. Both parents became prominent entrepreneurs and community leaders, an example that Terrell took deeply to heart.

Terrell’s parents separated in 1870, and Terrell and her brother went to live with their mother. Ayers was aware that the Memphis education system was poorly run for children of color and wanted her daughter to receive a good education, so she sent her daughter north to Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1871.

There, she attended the Antioch College-associated Model School for four years, an experience which set the foundation for much of her later activism.

Newspaper of Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell, 1900.

In her time at the school, Terrell was first confronted with racial discrimination; “It dawned on me with terrific force that these young white girls were making fun of me, were laughing at me, because I was colored … I ran to the door, stopped, turned around, and hurled back defiantly, ‘I don’t want my face to be White like yours and look like milk. I want it nice and dark just like it is.’ ”

Combined with Terrell’s new-found love of public speaking and an environment which prized education, her early encounters with discrimination served as the base on which she built her fight for equal rights.

In 1875, Terrell moved to Oberlin, Ohio, to attend both high school and college. In her four years in the Classical Studies “gentleman’s course,” Terrell found she was often “the only woman … Black or White, enrolled in fields of study considered exclusively for men.”

By 1888, she was one of the few black women in the United States to hold both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. Her experience with the formal higher education system helped to shape many of her later views, as much of her early activism centered increasing Black people’s access to quality education.

After graduating from Oberlin, Terrell taught at Wilberforce University in Ohio and later at the M Street High School in Washington, D.C. It was there that she met her husband, Robert Herberton Terrell. They married in October of 1891.

Over the next decade, Terrell became pregnant four times, but only her final pregnancy resulted in a living child, Phyllis. Their second daughter, her niece Mary, was adopted in 1905. Terrell’s problems with pregnancy led to her later advocacy for better health care for Black women and children. 

Along with advocacy for Black health care, Terrell also called for an end to lynching of African American people along with famous journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. In 1892, Terrell’s friend was lynched, an event that she later suggested as a contributing cause of her first miscarriage.

Later that year, Terrell helped create the Colored Women’s League in D.C., to organize Black women across the country. Originally, the group only focused on various education programs for black women and children. Later, the rebranded National League of Colored Women (NLCW) formally denounced lynching and called for reparations for victim’s families.

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Committed to ending lynching, Terrell promoted this position through several groups that she helped to lead. This network of Black activist groups later evolved into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 with Terrell’s help.

Terrell assumed several leadership positions across her career.

In 1895, she was appointed to the Washington, D.C., School Board as the first Black woman member, a position she held for 13 years. As a board member, Terrell drew on her education experiences from Ohio.

She constantly advocated for the inclusion of Black history in school curricula and refused to de-prioritize the Black schools in the district.

The following year, she became a founding member and first president of the National Association for Colored Women (NACW). As president, she pushed not only for women’s suffrage, but again called for free kindergartens, better health care systems and an increase in higher education for Black women, using her past experiences in both the American education and medical systems to fuel the movement.

Terrell frequently called for the upper-class club members to not only fight for civil rights and suffrage, but to “lift as we climb” and recognize the burden of overlapping discrimination, long before the coining of intersectionality. She was elected president three consecutive times, and the NACW spread to twenty-six states under her presidency.

Terrell held strong and radical views, which frequently saw her clash with other activists. She criticized Booker T. Washington, for example, for trying “to make colored people who had acquired the higher education appear as ridiculous as he could” and because he “would not think of publishing an article showing the progress of colored women because colored people on general principles were ‘too cocky’ as it was, he said.”

On the other hand, activists like Alice Paul were to be both praised for contributions to the suffrage movement and critiqued for refusing to push further to protect women of color. Paul frequently ignored calls for inclusion and protection of Black women’s voting rights.

In later campaigns for the Equal Rights Amendment, Paul only tolerated superficial participation by Black feminists and banned the NACW from participation over her own incorrect assumptions about the group.

Hindered by various medical issues, Terrell took a step back from direct work in politics, and in 1934, she started work on her autobiography. Like many others during the Depression, Terrell was experiencing financial strain. In her search for paid work, Terrell was confronted with a potent combination of racism, sexism and ageism.

Her experiences of discrimination in the Depression-era workplace were the basis for her late-life work.

Even in her old age, Mary Church Terrell remained active in a number of activist groups, including the NAACP. In her final decade, Terrell led dozens of activists and organizations in successfully desegregating D.C. restaurants and stores.

She would keep fighting racism until her death in July 1954 – two months after the Supreme Court decided that segregated schools were unconstitutional in the case of Brown v. Board of Education – and left behind nine decades of tireless activism.

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