Mary Church Terrell

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Mary Church Terrell
Mary church terrell.jpg
Mary Church

September 23, 1863
DiedJuly 24, 1954(1954-07-24) (aged 90)
NationalityBlack American
Other namesEuphemia Kirk
OccupationCivil rights activist, Journalist
Known forOne of the first African-American women to earn a college degree

Founding member of National Association of Colored Women

Charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
Parent(s)Robert Reed Church
Louisa Ayers

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).

Early life and education[edit]

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.[1]

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 Robert Sr.'s second wife, Anna Wright. Robert Church later married a third time.

Mary Church later majored in Classics at Oberlin College—which was the first college in the United States 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. Terrell earned her bachelor's degree in 1884 alongside notable African-American intellectuals Anna Julia Cooper and Ida Gibbs Hunt. Together, these three Oberlin graduates grew to become lifelong colleagues and high regarded activists in the movement towards racial and gender equality in the United States. Continuing her studies at Oberlin, Terrell earned her master's degree in Education four years later.


Painting of Mary Church Terrell by Betsy Graves Reyneau, 1888–1964

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.

Marriage and family[edit]

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.[2] Phyllis was named after Phillis Wheatley.[3] The Terrells later adopted a second daughter, Mary.


Fighting For Black Women's Suffrage[edit]

Having been an avid suffragist during her years as an Oberlin student, Terrell continued to be active in the happenings within suffragists circles in the National Association Woman Suffrage Association. It was through these meetings that Mary Terrell became associated with Susan B. Anthony. An association which Terrell describes in her biography as "delightful, helpful friendship"[4] which lasted until Anthony's passing in 1906. What grew out out of Terrell's association with NAWSA a desire to create a formal organizing group amongst black women in America to tackle issues of lynching, the disenfranchisement of the race and development a new educational reform. Being the one of few African-American women who was allowed to attend NAWSA's meetings, Terrell spoke directly about the injustices and issues within the African-American community.

In 1898, Terrell gave an address titled "The Progress and Problems of Colored Women" at the National American Woman Suffrage Association biennial session in Washington D.C. This speech was a call of action for NAWSA to fight for the lives of black women.[5] The speech received great reception from the Association and black news outlets at large ultimately leading Terrell to be invited back as an unofficial (black) ambassador for the Association. Though many black women were overwhelmingly concerned and involved in the fight towards American women's to vote, the National American Woman Suffrage did not allow black women to create their own chapter within their organization. In A Colored Woman In A White World, Terrell recalls how she was able to navigate her college years at the predominantly white attended Oberlin with a sense of ease due her racial ambiguity. In subsequent years, it can be noted that Terrell understood her mobility as a white passing African-American woman necessary to creating greater links between African-Americans and white American thus leading her to become an active voice in NAWSA. In 1913, NAWSA held a suffrage rally in which Mary Church Terrell led the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority women of Howard University.[5]

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 primarily white American women were given the right to vote. The Southern states from 1890 to 1908 passed voter registration and election laws that disfranchised African-Americans in their right to vote. These restrictions were not fully overturned until after Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

National Association of Colored Women[edit]

In 1892, Mary Terrell formed the Colored Women's League to aid in elevating the lives of educated black women outside of a church setting. Around the same time, a group of progressive black women were gathering in Boston, Massachusetts under the direction of suffragist and intellectual Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin under the name Federation of Afro-American Women. Being that both organizations had similar ambitions and audiences, Terrell and Ruffin decided to combine their efforts with hundreds of others organizations to reach a wider focus of black women workers, students and activists nearing the beginning of the 20th century. Out of this union formed the National Association of Colored Women which became the first secular national organization dedicated to the livelihoods of black women in America.

In 1896, Terrell became the first president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women (NACW), whose members created day nurseries and kindergartens for black children. 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.  


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 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 primarily American white women were given the right to vote. The Southern states from 1890 to 1908 passed voter registration and election laws that suppressed African-Americans right to vote. These restrictions were not fully overturned until after Congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Though Terrell passed in 1954, her legacy and early fight for black women to vote continues to be cited.

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 in the town she lived Annapolis, Maryland.

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • 1933 – At Oberlin College's centennial celebration, Terrell was recognized among the college's "Top 100 Outstanding Alumni".[6]
  • 1948 – Oberlin awarded Terrell the honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.
  • 1954, First Lady Mamie Eisenhower paid tribute to Terrell's memory in a letter read to the NACW convention on August 1, writing: "For more than 60 years, her great gifts were dedicated to the betterment of humanity, and she left a truly inspiring record."[7]
  • 1975 – The Mary Church Terrell house in the LeDroit Park neighborhood of Washington was named a National Historic Landmark.
  • In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante included Mary Church Terrell on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.[8]
  • 2009– Terrell was among 12 pioneers of civil rights commemorated in a United States Postal Service postage stamp series.[9]
  • Mary Church Terrell Elementary School at 3301 Wheeler Road, SE in Washington, DC was her honor.


  • "Duty of the National Association of Colored Women to the Race", A. M. E. Church Review (January 1900), 340–54.
  • "Club Work of Colored Women", Southern Workman, August 8, 1901, 435–38.
  • "Society Among the Colored People of Washington", Voice of the Negro (April 1904), 150–56.
  • "Lynching from a Negro's Point of View", North American Review 178 (June 1904), 853–68.
  • "The Washington Conservatory of Music for Colored People", Voice of the Negro (November 1904), 525–30.
  • "Purity and the Negro", Light (June 1905), 19–25.
  • "Paul Lawrence Dunbar", Voice of the Negro (April 1906), 271–77.
  • "Susan B. Anthony, the Abolitionist", Voice of the Negro (June 1906), 411–16.
  • "A Plea for the White South by a Colored Woman", Nineteenth Century (July 1906), 70–84.
  • "What It Means to Be Colored in the Capital of the United States", Independent, October 10, 1906, 181–86.
  • "An Interview with W. T. Stead on the Race Problem", Voice of the Negro (July 1907), 327–30
  • "Peonage in the United States: The Convict Lease System and the Chain Gangs", Nineteenth Century 62 (August 1907), 306–22.
  • "Phyllis Wheatley – An African Genius". Star of the West. 19 (7): 221–23. October 1928. Retrieved December 24, 2013. (see Phyllis Wheatley.)
  • A Colored Woman in a White World (1940), autobiography.
  • "I Remember Frederick Douglass", Ebony (1953), 73–80.


  1. ^ Jessie Carney Smith, ed., "Robert Reed Church Sr.", in Notable Black American Men, 1 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1999), 202.
  2. ^ Current Biography 1942, p. 829.
  3. ^ Culp, Daniel Wallace (1902). Twentieth Century Negro Literature; or, A Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro. Atlanta: J.L. Nichols & Co. p. 172.
  4. ^ Terrell, Mary Church (1940). A Colored Woman In A White World. Washington, D.C: Humanity Books. p. 185.
  5. ^ a b Giddings, Paula (1984). When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: William Morrow and Company, INC. p. 127.
  6. ^ Current Biography 1942, pp. 827–30.
  7. ^ "Mrs. Eisenhower Lauds Work of Mrs. Terrell," The Charleston Gazette, August 2, 1954, p. 6.
  8. ^ Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8. pp. 275-278.
  9. ^ "Press release on civil rights pioneer stamps" Archived 2009-05-08 at the Wayback Machine., USPS official website.

Further reading[edit]

  • Church, M. T.(1940). A Colored Woman in a White World. Washington, DC: Ransdell, Inc. Publishers.
  • Cooper, Brittney C. (2017). Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
  • Davis, E. L. (1996). Lifting as They Climb. New York: G.K. Hall & Co.
  • Johnson, K. A. (2000). Uplifting the Women and the Race: The Educational Philosophies and Social Activism of Anna Julia Cooper and Nannie Helen Burroughs, New York: Garland Publishing.
  • Jones, B. W. (1982). "Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women: 1986-1901," The Journal of Negro History, 67, 20–33.
  • Jones, B. W. (1990). Quest for Equality: The Life and Writings of Mary Eliza Church Terrell. Brooklyn, New York: Carlson Publishing, Inc.
  • Margaret Nash, Patient Persistence: The Political and Educational Values of Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell. University of California at Riverside.
  • Sterling, Dorothy. (1988). Black Foremothers: Three Lives. New York: The Feminist Press, 119-148.
  • Wade-Gayles, G. "Black Women Journalists in the South: 1880–1905: An Approach to the Study of Black Women's History", Callaloo, 11, 138–52.
  • Washington Post. "Restaurant's Right to Bar Negroes Upheld."
  • Washington Post. "Assails Mrs. Terrell". June 19, 1904.
  • "Mary Church Terrell", American Memory, Library of Congress
  • "Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954)", Digital Library, Tennessee State University
  • "Mary Eliza Church Terrell", Afro-American History
  • This article is based in part on a document created by the National Park Service, which is part of the US Government. As such, it is presumed to be in the public domain.

External links[edit]