Mary Church Terrell was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree. She was a renowned national civil rights activist and an early advocate for women’s suffrage movement. She was one of the founder members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked tirelessly for African-American women to become respectable citizens of the United States. Born to a pioneer businessman in Tennessee, his parents were former mixed-race slaves who regarded education as essential in earning racial uplift and respect in the society. After earning her college degree, Mary started her career as a teacher and went on to be appointed principal of the high school. As the first elected president of the National Association of Colored Women, Terrell campaigned vigorously for black women’s suffrage. She lectured throughout the country on the importance of the vote for black women and deemed it essential for the elevation of black women and consequently the entire black race. Following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, Mary turned her attention to civil rights and became the first black member of the National Association of University Women. During the last years of her life, she marched against segregation with her committee members, displaying an immense willpower to fight against injustice. She was a highly respected lecturer and civil rights activist who battled to better the lives of African American women throughout her life.
Childhood & Early Life
Mary Eliza Church was born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee, U.S., to Robert Reed Church, a wealthy businessman, and his first wife, Louisa Ayers Church. Both of her parents were former mixed-race slaves and Mary had two half siblings from her father’s second marriage.
She received her elementary education from the Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio. In 1884, she graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio and became one of the first African-American women to earn a bachelor’s degree.
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Upon completing her graduation, Mary taught at a black secondary school in Washington D.C., and at Wilberforce College, a black college in Ohio. After teaching for a while, she went on a two-year tour to Europe, traveling to France, Germany and Italy.
Upon returning to the United States, she pursued post-graduation and obtained a master’s degree from Oberlin in 1888. Subsequently, Mary Church continued as a teacher and was eventually appointed principal of the high school.
After her marriage in 1891, she entered the feminist movement and became an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. As one of the leading civil rights activists, she ensured that the association continued to fight for the voting rights of the black women.
In 1895, Mary Church was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education, becoming the first black woman to hold such a position. Subsequently, she formed the National Federation of Afro-American Women.
In 1896, Mary was elected the first president of the newly formed ‘National Association of Colored Women’. An early advocate of women’s rights, the organization worked particularly for the concerns of black women. Same year, she also founded the National Association of College Women, which later became the National Association of University Women (NAUW).
In 1904, she was the only black woman invited to speak at the Berlin International Congress of Women and gave her speech in German, French and English.
In 1909, she became a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and later also helped organize the ‘Delta Sigma Theta’ sorority.
An adept political organizer, Terrell addressed a wide range of social issues and also worked for the women’s suffrage movement, which pushed for enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
In addition to being an eloquent speaker, she was also a prolific writer and wrote several books. In 1940, she published her autobiography called ‘A Colored Woman in a White World’ (1940).
In 1949, she became the first African American admitted to the Washington chapter of the American Association of University Women and brought an end its policy of refusing to include blacks in organization.
In 1950, after being refused service by a whites-only restaurant, she took part in the struggle against segregation in public eating places in Washington D.C. The movement proved to be successful when the Supreme Court banned discrimination in public places in the District of Columbia.
In 1896, Mary Church Terrell became the first president of the newly formed ‘National Association of Colored Women’ and advocated for the rights of black women. The organization worked tirelessly to achieve educational and social reform and also put an end to the discriminatory practices.
In the final years of her life, Terrell worked as an activist and was involved in a successful struggle against racism and laid the groundwork which helped bring down segregated restaurants in public eating places in Washington D.C.
Awards & Achievements
In 1948, Mary received the honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Oberlin College in Ohio.
In 2009, she was among the 12 pioneers of civil rights who were honored in a United States Postal Service postage stamp series.
Personal Life & Legacy
In October 1891, Mary married Robert Heberton Terrell, a lawyer who went on to be appointed as the first black municipal court judge in Washington, DC. The couple had three children together out of which only their daughter, Phyllis, survived to adulthood. Later, they also adopted a daughter named Mary.
Mary Church Terrell died after a brief illness on July 24, 1954, in Annapolis, Maryland.