For 70 years, Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was a prominent advocate of African American and women's rights. She traveled around the world speaking about the achievements of African Americans and raising awareness of the conditions in which they lived.
Mary Eliza Church was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 23, 1863, to two recently emancipated slaves. Her father, Robert Reed Church, was the son of a white river boat captain and a black house servant. After settling in Memphis, Robert Church operated a saloon. Mary's mother, Louisa Ayers Church, had been a house servant who was well educated and well treated before her emancipation.
Robert and Louisa Church were both light-skinned African American blacks who lived a comfortable life in a white neighborhood outside Memphis where Louisa operated a successful hair salon. Mary, known as Mollie, had a brother four years younger. She grew up with white friends and knew little about the condition in which most African American people lived until she was about five years old. When her maternal grandmother, a former house slave, told her stories about the brutality of slave owners, Terrell began to understand the history of African Americans. In her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, Terrell described how she cried when she heard her grandmother's stories and her grandmother comforted her, saying, "Never mind, honey. Gramma ain't a slave no more."
Robert and Louisa Church divorced when Mary was very young and Louisa moved north to New York where she opened another, equally successful, hair salon. Because educational opportunities for African American children were poor in Memphis, Terrell was sent north to live with her mother when she was six years old. Terrell was one of only a handful of African American children in the school she now attended, and she was sometimes ridiculed because of her race. When studying the Emancipation Proclamation, a fellow student made a rude remark to Terrell. In her autobiography she described her reaction: "I resolved that so far as this descendant of slaves was concerned, she would show those white girls and boys whose forefathers had always been free that she was their equal in every respect… . I felt I must hold high the banner of my race."
Terrell eventually attended Oberlin High School in Oberlin, Ohio, and from there enrolled at Oberlin College where she earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1884. After graduating she returned to Memphis, where her father had remarried. By this time, Robert Church had become very wealthy. In 1879 Memphis experienced a yellow fever epidemic, causing residents to evacuate the city in a panic, selling their properly for next to nothing as they fled. Robert Church invested all of his money in real estate during the evacuation and within a few years he was a millionaire.
Robert Church was opposed to his daughter working; he wished her to remain in Memphis and marry. But Terrell was restless; she had been looking forward to a teaching career and promoting the welfare of her race. After a year in Memphis she returned to the Midwest, taking a teaching job at Wilberforce University, near Xenia, Ohio. Her father was incensed that she had defied his wishes and for a time he refused to communicate with her.
In 1887 Terrell moved to Washington, D.C. where she taught Latin at the M Street Colored High School. After a year, her father, with whom she had by now reconciled, sent her to study in Europe. She spent two years traveling in France, Germany, and Italy, countries free from racial discrimination. She considered staying in Europe, but said in her autobiography, "I knew I would be much happier trying to promote the welfare of my race in my native land, working under certain hard conditions, than I would be living in a foreign land where I could enjoy freedom from prejudice, but where I would make no effort to do the work which I then believed it was my duty to do."
Terrell returned to the M Street School, where she was reunited with her supervisor, Robert Heberton Terrell. Robert Terrell was one of the first African Americans to graduate from Harvard University, and he had paid court to Terrell before her trip to Europe. In 1891 the two were married, and they made their new home in Washington, D.C. Marriage marked the end of Terrell's teaching career, since married women did not work. Robert Terrell attended law school at night and left teaching to work as an attorney and eventually became the first African American municipal judge in the nation's capitol city.
The first few years of the Terrells' marriage were marked by illness and disappointment. Mary Terrell was often sick and within five years had lost three babies shortly after their birth. Her fourth child, a girl named Phyllis, was born healthy in 1898. The couple adopted Mary's ten-year-old niece, also named Mary, in 1905.
Terrell devoted her life to improving the lives of African Americans and especially women. Her public service began when she was appointed to the Washington, D.C. school board. The first African American woman on the board, she served from 1895 to 1901 and again from 1906 to 1911.
Terrell and her husband were both advocates of women's suffrage. Terrell often marched for women's rights in front of the White House and Capitol Hill. At meetings of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, a group led by suffragist Susan B. Anthony, Terrell encouraged the group to include African American women in their agenda. In 1898 Anthony invited Terrell to address the group on "The Progress and Problems of Colored Women." A few years later she spoke again, this time without regard to race, on "The Justice of Woman Suffrage." Terrell soon earned a reputation as an effective speaker and activist.
After passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote, the Republican Party named Terrell director of Colored Women of the East. She organized efforts in eastern states encouraging women to use their right to vote.
Advocating on behalf of African American women led Terrell to found the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. She served two terms as the group's president and then was named honorary president for life. She was also a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Terrell's oratory skills earned her a position as a professional lecturer for Slayton Lyceum Bureau. She traveled throughout the south and east speaking of the achievements of African American women and advocating for justice and education for African Americans and people of color around the world. Terrell was surprised at how little white people knew about the conditions in which African Americans lived, and she worked to raise awareness of discrimination, disenfranchisement, and lynching. She also wrote numerous magazine and newspaper articles highlighting civil rights issues.
It was not easy or safe for a African American woman to travel alone in the South during the early 20th century. Terrell was light skinned and was sometimes mistaken for a white person. Although she did not advocate African American people crossing "the color line" and living as white, she did not draw attention to her race if she could get away with using white accommodations. When she was recognized as African American, she was prohibited from eating in restaurants, traveling in Pullman cars, or staying in most hotels. She described many examples of such discrimination in her autobiography.
Despite her political activism, Terrell was devoted to her children and never left home for more then three weeks at a time. Her mother lived with her family for 15 years and cared for the children when Terrell was away. Daughters Phyllis and Mary both graduated from college and became teachers. Daughter Mary was a musician as well.
Terrell's speaking engagements took her abroad for the first time in 1904, when she spoke at the International Congress of Women in Berlin, Germany. Her speech raised awareness in Europe of the race problem in America. She spoke at the International Congress of Women again following World War I in 1919. Although the conference included women from around the world, Terrell was the only woman of color in attendance. She felt that she represented not only the United States, but all the non-white countries of the world. In her speech she emphasized the importance of justice and fairness for people of color, stressing that a lasting peace will never come to pass while inequality exists among the races.
Robert Terrell suffered a stroke in 1921 and died four years later. Terrell was 62 years old when she was widowed. Six years later she fell in love again, but because the man was married the relationship ended. In 1937, when Terrell was aged 73, her brother died, leaving her to raise her ten-year-old nephew, Thomas Church.
In 1940 the 77-year-old activist's autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, was published. The book describes Terell's childhood, education, and her years of travel and advocacy on behalf of African American rights. Terrell described the prejudice she encountered in restaurants, hotels, theaters, education, employment, while buying a home—virtually every aspect of her life. She described times when, weak with hunger, she had to pass by restaurants in Washington, D.C. because they did not serve African American people. She recounted how she was offered jobs or club memberships, only to have the offers revoked when it was discovered that she was African American. While Terrell intended the book to be a forthright account of the prejudice she had experienced, the autobiography described events in polite terms and was less critical of American society than she perhaps intended. In contrast, her diaries reveal a more emotional response to the treatment she had endured.
As she aged Terrell became more forceful in her fight for civil rights. She appeared before the U.S. Congress to urge passage of an anti-lynching bill. In 1946 she applied for membership in the American Association of University Women. When her application was rejected, she appealed and after three years the board finally voted to admit African American women.
In 1949, when she was 86 years old, Terrell was invited to be honorary chairperson of the coordinating committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Law in Washington, D.C. The District of Columbia had on its books 1872 and 1873 laws prohibiting exclusion of African American people from restaurants, theaters, and other public places, although these statutes had never been enforced. In fact, they had been illegally deleted from the District Code in the 1890s. Terrell, not satisfied with being honorary chair, became the group's working chairperson. She presided over meetings, spoke at rallies, and on January 7, 1950, led a group of four African American people to Thompson's cafeteria, located two blocks from the White House. Terrell and her companions put soup on their trays and sat down to eat. They were asked to leave, prompting the committee to file a lawsuit charging the restaurant with violating their civil rights.
While the suit dragged through the courts, Terrell and her group met with restaurant and store owners trying to convince them to open their lunch counters to everyone. Some businesses complied, but many more remained closed to African Americans. Terrell encouraged boycotts and picketed the holdouts. For two years Terrell, now aged and stooped, led the picket line day after day, in all kinds of weather. In Black Foremothers: Three Lives, a younger picketer is quoted as recalling: "When my feet hurt I wasn't going to let a women fifty years older than I do what I couldn't do. I kept on picketing." One by one, the restaurants gave in and on June 8, 1953, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Terrell's favor.
Terrell continued to fight battles on behalf of her race until her death. Her 90th birthday was marked by a party for 700 people and included a White House reception. Addressing the gathering, she pledged to see an end to racial discrimination within Washington, D.C. by the time she reached 100 years of age. Her wish would not be granted, however; a few months later, on July 24, 1954, Terrell died of cancer at her summer home in Highland Beach, Maryland. Her body lay in state in the headquarters building of the National Association of Colored Women, which she had co-founded nearly 60 years earlier. Thousands paid their respects.
Notable American Women: The Modern Period, edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green, Belknap Press, 1980.
Sterling, Dorothy, Black Foremothers: Three Lives, Feminist Press, 1988.
Terrell, Mary Church, A Colored Woman in a White World, Ransdell Inc., 1940.
Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Anne Commire, editor, Yorkin Publications, 1999.