Terrell, Mary Eliza Church

Social activist and early feminist who advocated for women's suffrage and civil rights for African Americans. Born to free parents who had been newly emancipated from slavery, she became a formidable educator, lecturer and author. She is best known as the co-founder and first president of the National Association of Colored Women.


Definition/Life Highlights

Mary Eliza Church Terrell was a social activist and early feminist who advocated for women's suffrage and civil rights for African Americans. Born to free parents who had been newly emancipated from slavery, she became a formidable educator, lecturer and author. She is best known as the co-founder and first president of the National Association of Colored Women. The first black woman appointed by the Washington D.C. Board of Education, Terrell also served on the Executive Committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She established a District of Columbia NAACP branch and served as its vice-president. As an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, she was very involved in striving for women's rights, of particular concern to her were the rights of black women. She stated this concern at a women's suffrage convention in 1890: "A white woman has only one handicap to overcome - a great one, true, her sex. A colored woman faces two—her sex and her race. A colored man has only one—that of race."

Terrell was a prolific writer whose opinion pieces appeared in several black newspapers and periodicals as well as the prominent white news media. She specifically addressed racial problems and issues such as Jim Crow laws, lynching of African Americans, and the convict lease system. In her book, A Colored Woman in a White World, Terrell tells her own life story in vivid detail.


Historic Roots

Terrell was born on September 23, 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee to former slaves, Louisa and Robert Reed Church. Known as Mollie, she grew up in a suburb of Memphis with white children as her first playmates (Sterling, 12). On Sundays, her father often took her to visit Captain Church. She would later learn that this older white man was her paternal grandfather and had been her father's master. Captain Church had allowed his slave son to learn to read and write. Robert Church went on to become the South's first black millionaire. Louisa Church was also an entrepreneur who owned her own hair store. Her parents divorced when she was three years old and Mollie and her brother lived with their mother. Mollie was sent to school in Ohio and later attended Antioch and Oberlin Colleges. Though it was her father's desire that she live as a genteel lady, Terrell had other plans. After graduating from Oberlin in 1884, she taught at Wilberforce University and then at a high school in Washington D.C. In 1891, she married Robert Terrell, a teacher and lawyer. She gave birth to four babies but only one daughter, Phyllis, survived. She and her husband later adopted their niece, Mary Church.


Importance

 

 

We have become National, because from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Maine to the Gulf, we wish to set in motion influences that shall stop the ravages made by practices that sap our strength, and preclude the possibility of advancement… We call ourselves an Association to signify that we have joined hands one with the other, to work together in a common cause. We proclaim to the world that the women of our race have become partners in the great firm of progress and reform… We refer to the fact that this is an association of colored women, because our peculiar status in this country . . . seems to demand that we stand by ourselves. (Jones, 24)

An active and dynamic lecturer, Terrell was sometimes amazed at the opportunities she was afforded. She lectured at a host of influential venues such as National Association of Colored Women Conventions, the International Council of Women (in Berlin, 1904), and the International Congress of Women (in Zurich, 1919), as well as forums across the United States. Seldom did she refuse an invitation to speak, viewing each occasion as an opportunity and even a duty to champion the cause of women and of civil rights.

Mary Church Terrell lived to be ninety years old and even, in later years, remained very active. In her eighty-sixth year, she persisted in political activism, notably in her pursuit to revive the "lost" anti-discrimination laws of 1872-73. These laws had established that " . . . a respectable, well-behaved person without respect to previous condition of servitude . . ." had the right to patron public eateries and hotels. Later, due to changes in Washington D.C.'s city administration, these laws "disappeared from the new legal code, although there was no record of them ever being rescinded" (McCluskey, 47). As head of the Coordinating Committee for the Empowerment of D.C. Anti-Discrimination laws, Terrell became increasingly militant as she picketed, lead delegations, and was a key witness in a test case involving Thompson Cafeteria (Sterling, 120). In the test case, three blacks and one white person entered Thompson Cafeteria and were refused service. This case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where justices finally upheld the old laws. Terrell was a champion for justice her entire life, using all of her talents to the best of her ability to quicken America's conscience. She died July 24, 1954 in Annapolis, Maryland.


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Mary Church Terrell spent her adult life working to advance the rights of, primarily, African American women. She was personally touched by the injustice of being black when a childhood friend of hers was lynched. But the injustice was a catalyst for a lifetime of advocacy, writing, public speaking, teaching, lobbying, and political activism. So, through personal example and individual participation as a citizen, she fought the status quo and raised public awareness in the United States and Europe of America's racial and gender inequality.

To aid in her social activism, Terrell helped to found a number of important nonprofit organizations. Foremost among these were the National Association of Colored Women which gave a voice to African American women. She aided in the work of the NAACP by starting a Washington D.C. branch and by serving as its vice-president. She was also an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.


Important People Related to the Topic

  • Mary McLeod Bethune (founder of a girls' school, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, college president).
     
  • Nannie Helen Burroughs (founder of the National Training School for Negro Women and Girls, writer, speaker)
     
  • Anna Julia Cooper (feminist, scholar, educator)
     
  • Frederick Douglass
     
  • Ida B. Wells-Barnett (journalist, activist, suffragist and a founder of the NAACP)


Important Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • International Council of Women
     
  • International Congress of Women
     
  • National American Woman Suffrage Association
     
  • National Association of Colored Women
     
  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People


Bibliography

Jones, Beverly W. "Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women, 1896-1901." Journal of Negro History 67, no.1 (1982): 20-33.

McCluskey, Audrey Thomas. "Setting the Standard: Mary Church Terrell's Last Campaign for Social Justice." Black Scholar 29, no.2-3 (1999): 47 (7).

Sterling, Dorothy. Black Foremothers: Three Lives. Old Westbury, New York: The Feminist Press, 1979.

Terrell, Mary Church. A Colored Woman in a White World. New York: G.K. Hall & Co., 1996.

Voice From the Gaps: Women Writers of Color. Mary Church Terrell [online]. Available: https://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/164018. (31 March 2001).

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.