Mary Eliza Church Terrell (1863-1954) worked for women’s suffrage and civil rights for African Americans throughout her career, achieving some of her biggest victories at the very end of her long life.
Mary Eliza Church was born to well-off parents in Memphis. Her father was supposedly the first African-American millionaire and her mother had a successful beauty parlor for black women (Terrell, xix). Her parents were determined to give her a good education (Terrell, xx). At age six, they sent her to Ohio, where she boarded with a family and studied in private schools; she studied at Oberlin College, graduating from there in 1884. Against the advice of friends, who thought too much education would be poor preparation for marriage, she took the more rigorous classics course. She passed, managing to impress a visiting Matthew Arnold with her Greek (Terrell, 41). After graduation, she came to Washington, D.C. for a job, teaching Latin in D.C.’s Preparatory High School. Her future husband, Robert H. Terrell, was a teacher there, and they married in 1891.
Through their married life, Robert constantly worked to find positions that would utilize his talent and make a good living to support the family. Mary pursued activist work; she was one of the founders and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women. She gave speeches on the Chautauqua circuit and was known as “the female Booker T. Washington,” making money to increase the family income (Quigley, 43). Terrell had long aspired to a career and had given up an offer of a job at Oberlin to marry Robert. They had one child, Phyllis, in 1898, and Mary Terrell continued to lecture while her mother cared for Phyllis. In 1906, the Brownsville Affair took place; the race riot in Texas was the start of Terrell’s path as a civil rights activist. Mary lobbied William Howard Taft, then War Department Secretary, to have the soldiers’ discharges stalled so an investigation could start. Terrell’s bid for justice was unsuccessful, but after that incident, she continued to pursue equality for African Americans. She wrote at that time that she had lived in D.C. for fifteen years and the city “made conditions ‘intolerable’ for blacks” (Quigley, 58).
She was indefatigable in her turns on the lecture circuit and in her article writing. She spoke on lynching, government relations to race, the convict lease system, women’s suffrage, education for African Americans and women, and what she and her contemporaries referred to as “the race problem.” She spoke at the International Congress of Women in Berlin in 1904 (the only American to give her address in German). She joined the NAACP shortly at its founding; participated in the Amenia Conference; and worked for the U.S. government in the War Camp Community Service. She and her husband grew more active after WWI, when it became clear that African American soldiers who fought for their country would not be allowed equality postwar. After Robert died of a stroke in 1925, she busied herself writing her memoir.
After she published her memoir in the early 1940s, she returned to activism. Washington after WWII was becoming even more segregated than earlier in the century; multiple instances of persons of color being refused restaurant service, entrance to museums, jobs, home purchases and etc. were protested and reported in the papers (Quigley, 136-138). Working with pro bono lawyers, Mary Terrell filed a complaint in D.C. Municipal Court, stating that Thompson’s Restaurant refused to serve her because of her race, in violation of 1872 and 1873 ordinances banning discrimination in restaurants in D.C. The laws were dropped in the 1901 Code, but had not been repealed. The case was taken to the Supreme Court, and in 1953, the Court agreed in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc. that the earlier laws were still valid, and legal grounds for discrimination ended. Terrell was 89. In 1954, just two months before she died, the Court made the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483.
Interested in learning more about Mary Church Terrell? You can read her personal papers, learn more about her life and volunteer for the By the People project here.
Library of Congress Digital Collections. Mary Church Terrell Papers. Accessed 4 March 2020.
Oberlin College Archives. Administrative/Biographical History, Mary Church Terrell. Accessed 4 March 2020.
Howard University Staff, MSRC, “TERRELL, Mary Church” (2015).Manuscript Division. Paper 191. Accessed 4 March 2020.
E185.97.T47 Q54 2016 Quigley, Joan. Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation’s Capital.
E 185.97.T47 A3 1996 Terrell, Mary Church, 1863-1954. A Colored Woman in a White World.
E185.86.G38 2000 Gatewood, Willard B. Aristocrats of Color : the Black Elite, 1880-1920.
KF299.A35 S65 1993 Smith, J. Clay. Emancipation : the Making of the Black Lawyer, 1844-1944.