WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell (Mary Eliza Church) was born in Memphis Tennessee on September 23, 1863 to Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayres. Both of her parents were freed slaves with mixed racial ancestry. Her father, Robert Reed Church, was a businessman who invested in real estate. He made his fortune buying property in Memphis following the Yellow Fever Epidemic of … Continue reading "WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: Mary Church Terrell" The post WOMEN’S HISTORY MONTH: Mary Church Terrell first appeared on The Savannah Tribune.
Mary Church Terrell (Mary Eliza Church) was born in Memphis Tennessee on September 23, 1863 to Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayres. Both of her parents were freed slaves with mixed racial ancestry. Her father, Robert Reed Church, was a businessman who invested in real estate. He made his fortune buying property in Memphis following the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 and was considered the first African-American millionaire in the South. Her mother, Louisa Ayres, was considered one of the first African-American women to establish and maintain her own hair salon.
Mary Church Terrell’s parents moved her to Oberlin, Ohio for her education from eighth grade through high school. She then attended Oberlin College, the first college in the United States to admit African-American and female students, and became one of the first African-American women to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in 1884 (after taking the four-year “gentleman’s course” over the twoyear “ladies course”). In 1888, she also became one of the first two black women to earn an MA (Master of Arts degree) after receiving her master’s in Education from Oberlin.
In 1887, Terrell moved to Washington, D.C. and accepted a teaching position in the Latin Department at the M Street School (the nation’s first African-American public high school), now known as the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. In 1888, she took a leave of absence from teaching, studied in Europe for two years and became fluent in French, German, and Italian. She married Robert “Berto” Heberton Terrell, who also taught at the M Street School, in 1891 and was forced to resign from her position at the school. However, she was later appointed superintendent of the M Street High School in 1895, becoming the first woman to hold the post.
Terrell was a charter member of the Colored Women’s League (Washington, D.C.) which was formed in 1892 along with Helen Appo Cook, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Jane Patterson, Evelyn Shaw, Charlotte Forten Grimké and Anna Julie Cooper. The service-oriented club promoted the social progress and best interests of the African American community including elevating the lives of educated Black women outside of the church and creating a training program and kindergarten before they were included in the public schools of Washington, D.C. Terrell also helped form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW – 1896), which was born from the combination of the Colored Women’s League, the Federation of Afro-American Women, and hundreds of other organizations with similar goals becoming the first secular national organization dedicated to the livelihoods of American Black women. She served as its first national president and was re-elected, serving from 1896-1901. Terrell later became the honorary president after declining a third re-election. These successes along with many other achievements, landed Mary an appointment to the District of Columbia Board of Education (1895-1906) where she became the first African American woman in the United States to be appointed to the school board of a major city.
Through her suffragist activism with the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), she became associated with both Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Mary was one of the few African-American women allowed to attend NAWSA’s meetings and in doing so spoke of the injustices and issues within the African American community like lynching, disenfranchisement, and educational reform. At the NAWSA biennial session in February 1898, she gave a well-received address entitled “The Progress of Colored Women” in which she spoke about the “double burden” of sex and race that African American women dealt with in comparison to white women. This led to her being invited back as an unofficial black ambassador for the Association.
Mary Church Terrell worked closely with Frederick Douglass on several civil rights campaigns, including an 1893 petition for a hearing of a statement regarding cases where black people in certain states were not receiving due process of law. Douglass also convinced her to stay active in public life when she was considering retiring from activism to focus on her family.
In 1909, Terrell was one of two black women (including Ida B. Wells-Barnett) invited to attend the first organizational meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) where she became a founding member. She also helped organize the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (1913- 1914), helping pen its oath and becoming an honorary member.
Mary Terrell was also a writer who often used the pen name “Euphemia Kirk” to publish in both the white and black press. She wrote for many newspapers, an autobiography, and was published in several journals. She has many published works including A Colored Woman in A White World (1940), A Plea for the White South by a Colored Woman (1906), and Lynching from a Negro’s Point of View (1904).
In 1950, Mary and her colleagues began a fight to integrate eating establishments in the District of Columbia after being refused service. They won the case due to a local integration law from the 1870s that required all eating places “to serve any respectable, well-behaved person regardless of color” or face a fine and forfeit their license. In June 1953, the court ruled that segregated eating places in Washington, D.C. were unconstitutional.
Terrell died on July 24, 1954 at the age of 90, two months after the Supreme Court’s decision in the Brown v. Board of Education case which made the racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional.
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