Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was a renowned speaker, educator, and civil rights and women’s rights activist. She was the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She also helped found Douglass Day in 1897 to honor Frederick Douglass’s life and legacy on his chosen birthday, February 14.
Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was an African American activist, educator, and suffragist. Her career spanned teaching in the Jim Crow Era, marching for the vote, and picketing segregated restaurants in the 1950s.
Born free in Memphis, Tennessee to Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayres during the Civil War, Mary Church Terrell entered into a prominent Black abolitionist family that later became part of a Black elite class post-Reconstruction. Her father grew wealthy from investing in real estate, benefitting from the devaluation of property caused by the mass exodus of people from the city during the 1873 yellow fever epidemic. Her mother was a businesswoman herself, the owner of a hair salon for Memphis elites.
Like Anna Julia Cooper, Terrell attended Oberlin College and graduated in 1884 alongside her. Both women insisted on pursuing the “gentlemen’s course,” studying the classics for four years rather than the two years often prescribed to women. Terrell and Cooper went on to gain master’s degrees in education, among the first Black women to earn an MA. Both women also went on to teach at M Street High School (later named Dunbar High School) in Washington, D.C., but Terrell was forced to resign after she married her husband, Robert Heberton Terrell, who also taught there. In 1895, she was appointed the superintendent of Dunbar High School, becoming the first woman to hold the position.
Terrell was a prolific writer and social activist, contributing to many newspapers and journals regarding lynching, women’s rights, and Black women’s roles as activists. Fluent in French, German, and Italian, she also frequently traveled internationally, giving speeches about women’s rights and the injustices facing African Americans. In 1892, Terrell formed the Colored Women’s League along with Mary Appo Cook, Anna Julia Cooper, Charlotte Forten Grimké, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary Jane Patterson. The organization sought to serve the African American community by promoting social progress for Black men, women, and children.
In 1896, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which united the Colored Women’s League with Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin’s National Federation of Afro-American Women and many other Black women’s clubs and organizations. The NACW was the first national organization dedicated to supporting and improving the lives of African American women. Terrell was the first president of the NACW and went on to serve two terms. In 1897, she helped found Douglass Day to honor Frederick Douglass’s life and legacy on his chosen birthday, February 14. Additionally, she was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), one of only two Black women (the other being Ida B. Wells-Barnett) invited to the first organizational meeting in 1909. In 1913, Terrell also helped found the Black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta.
Terrell was also active in the National American Woman Suffrage Association, becoming friends and collaborators with Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was one of the few African American women present at their meetings and vocalized the injustices facing the African American community. In 1898, Terrell gave her famous speech, “The Progress of Colored Women,” urging the association to fight for and support Black women who faced a “double burden” in dealing with both racism and sexism.
Collaborating with diverse activists from Ida B. Wells to Susan B. Anthony, in the first half of the twentieth century, Terrell was a tireless agitator for women’s and civil rights. In 1950, at the age of 87, Terrell began her fight to integrate restaurants in Washington D.C. She staged sit-ins, boycotts, and picketing events, then filed a lawsuit after she and her fellow organizers were refused service. In 1953, the court ruled that segregation in DC restaurants was unconstitutional. Further, after nearly a century of activism, she lived long enough to see the Supreme Court rule against school segregation, the culmination of a life devoted to education and freedom.