Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was an African American civil rights activist, suffragist, writer, educator, and organizer. She was also one of the first African American women to go to college in the U.S.
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Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.
Today’s feminist was an African American civil rights activist and suffragist who worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to improve the lot of her race and gender. As a writer, educator, and organizer, her accomplishments were far-reaching. She was also one of the first African American women to go to college in the U.S. Let’s talk about Mary Church Terrell.
Mary Eliza Church was born on September 23, 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee. Mary’s parents were both freed slaves who owned small, thriving businesses and provided a comfortable life for Mary and her brother. Mary’s father, Robert Reed Church was one of the Southern United State’s first Black millionaires. Her mother, Louisa Ayres Church, was one of the first Black women to open and run a hair salon.
Their success was remarkable as Tennessee in 1863, during the middle of the Civil War, was quite a discriminatory place to say the least.
Her parents’ success allowed Mary access to an education she may otherwise have been barred from receiving. When Mary attended Oberlin College, she became one of the first African American women to earn a college degree. Oberlin was the first college in the U.S. to open its doors to women and African Americans. She majored in Classics and earned her bachelor’s degree alongside Anna Julia Cooper and Ida Gibbs Hunt, two other prominent Black intellectuals and activists. Mary then got her master’s in education.
After graduation, Mary taught at the Historically Black College, Wilberforce College, now called Wilberforce University. She then moved to Washington D.C., and taught at the M Street Colored High School. There, she met a man named Robert Heberton Terrell. Robert had his own successful career as an attorney and educator. He would later become the first Black municipal court judge in D.C. The two got married and had four children, though only one daughter survived infancy. The couple would later adopt a second daughter.
After spending a few years in Europe studying languages, Mary returned to the U.S. and dove into activism.
In 1892, Thomas Moss, a friend of Mary’s, was lynched by white business owners. This had a major impact on Mary and led her to join anti-lynching campaigns. She famously wrote a piece condemning the widespread trend of lynchings in the South.
In the piece, entitled “Lynching from a Negro’s Point of view,” Mary wrote “the South has so industriously, so persistently and eloquently preached the inferiority of the negro, that the North has apparently been converted to this view.”
In 1892, Mary formed the “Colored Women’s League” along with her college friends and other well-known feminists, abolitionists and scholars. Their intention was to provide support and empowerment to the African American community, and especially to black women.
Due to her successful career and her achievements in activism, Mary was also appointed to the D.C. School Board in 1895. She was the first black woman to ever hold the position.
A year later, the Colored Women’s League merged with other mission-aligned organizations to expand its reach and impact. The coalition formed the “National Association of Colored Women.” Mary was the first president of the Association, and her words, “Lifting as we climb,” became the organization’s motto.
Those words conveyed the essence of the association's intention: that through solidarity, comes progress for all.
As president, Mary was extremely active. She spoke and wrote for the cause. She fought for women’s suffrage and specifically for Black women’s suffrage. She would later even picket the White House with the National Woman’s Party, which we talked about earlier this week in our episode about Alice Paul.
In 1898, Mary gave an address called “The Progress of Colored Women” at the National American Woman Suffrage Association’s conference in D.C. Through the movement she became good friends with Susan B. Anthony and other luminaries of the age like Jane Addams, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois.
In 1904, Mary traveled to Berlin to speak at the International Congress of Women. She was the only Black woman at the conference. Mary delivered her address in three languages: German, French and English, and received a standing ovation.
Five years later, in 1909, Mary was one of the founders of the National Association for The Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The next year she also co-founded the College Alumnae Club, later called the National Association of University Women.
The 19th Amendment was added to the U.S. Constitution in 1920, giving women the right to vote, but that right didn’t extend in practice to people of color. Mary urged activists including Alice Paul to turn their attention to extending rights more broadly. Alice Paul wasn’t interested, but Mary didn’t give up. She published an autobiography called, “A Colored Woman in a White World” to share her personal experiences with prejudice.
In 1950, Mary helped in the fight to desegregate restaurants in D.C. by actively protesting against segregated establishments. Segregated restaurants were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court three years later.
Well into her eighties, Mary continued protesting in picket lines and taking part in advocacy work. She passed away in 1954 at the age of 90.
All month we’re talking about feminists. We’ve covered feminists in every theme so far. What differentiates this month is that we will be looking at women who were particularly important to the women’s rights movement, the suffrage movement, and/or modern feminism and feminist theory. On Saturdays, we’re talking about modern feminists brought to you by this month’s sponsor, Fiverr. On Sundays, we’re highlighting favorite feminists from past months chosen by other podcast hosts we love. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our new Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.
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Talk to you tomorrow!