Mary Eliza Church Terrell

Aug 6th, 2011 | By | Category: Education
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Mary Eliza Church Terrell1863-1954  Mary Eliza Church Terrell played a central role in the struggle for civil rights. A master at organizing, lecturing, and writing, she was present at the founding of the NAACP. Terrell began her career as an activist in an era when lynching was common in the United States, and lived to see the dawn of the American Civil Rights Movement.

Advantaged Beginnings

Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 23, 1863, during the height of the Civil War. She was the daughter of Robert Reed Church, a freed slave, and Louisa Ayers, the owner and operator of a beauty parlor. After the war ended, Terrell’s father opened a saloon in Memphis, and was able to parlay his profits into a real estate empire that made him one of the country’s first black millionaires. Terrell’s mother and father separated when Terrell was an infant, but her father maintained a close relationship with Terrell and her brother as they grew up.

Benefiting from the advantage of her father’s financial support, rare at the time for an African American, Terrell traveled to Antioch College’s innovative preparatory school in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for her education. Antioch, founded by abolitionists before the Civil War, was one of those rare American institutions that welcomed Blacks, but Terrell nonetheless faced constant, overt racism, and felt she had to resist it by excelling at everything she tried. She went on to the Oberlin Academy and then Oberlin College, where instead of following the two-year program designed for women, she enrolled in a four-year course of study normally reserved for men. Terrell graduated with honors in 1884.

With a degree in classical languages, Terrell remained in Ohio for a time and took a teaching position at the traditionally black Wilberforce College. She then moved to Washington, DC, taking a job as a high school teacher for black students. Restless to see the world and with a passion for languages, Terrell persuaded her father, with considerable difficulty, to support her as she pursued the common practice of spending an extended period of time traveling and studying in Europe. After two years, she returned to Washington, fluent in French, German, and Italian, and resumed her high school teaching career. Under the discriminatory policies of the local school board, however, she was obliged to resign her position in 1891 when she married fellow teacher and future District of Columbia Municipal Court Judge Robert H. Terrell. Terrell was a graduate of Groton Academy, Harvard University, and the Howard University Law School. Like his bride, he was no stranger to wealth and privilege. The couple lost three children in infancy, but raised a daughter of their own as well as adopting a second child.

A Tragic, Defining Event

Terrell soon demonstrated that she would never be content with wealth and privilege alone. In 1892, she received horrifying news from Memphis: a childhood friend of hers, Thomas Moss, along with two of his friends, had been lynched. The murder, committed by a white mob during a melee instigated by one of Moss’ rivals in the grocery business, went unpunished. Terrell joined Frederick Douglass in asking for a meeting with President Benjamin Harrison. President Harrison was well aware of what Terrell and Douglass wanted: a statement condemning lynching. But like most politicians of the time, he was unwilling to face the political consequences and refused the meeting.

Moss’ murder and Harrison’s refusal to act ignited a fire in Terrell that led to direct action. In 1896, she helped found the Washington Colored Women’s League to give African American women financial assistance, offer the opportunity to improve social skills, and address issues such as segregation, bars to voting, economic inequality, and lynching. The League soon merged with other organizations to form the National Association of Colored Women, or NACW, with Terrell assuming the role of president. With the NACW as her forum, Terrell began traveling from one end of the country to the other, developing a national reputation as a dynamic and inspirational public speaker. In Washington, DC, Terrell became the first African American to serve on a school board, holding office between 1895 and 1911. When the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was founded in 1909, she was present as a charter member.

Terrell continued her work as an advocate for women and African Americans during the decades that followed. She lectured against discrimination in both America and Europe, and wrote countless articles and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, including The North American Review, The Independent, and The Boston Herald. In 1940, she published a widely read autobiography under the title A Colored Woman in a White World. At age 80, Terrell was as staunch an activist as ever. Remaining outspoken into the years following World War II, she enthusiastically embraced the boycotts, marches, and sit-ins of a new generation of activists dedicated to ending segregation and discrimination. Cane in hand, she led picketing campaigns against restaurants that excluded African Americans, and instigated a groundbreaking legal challenge to the practice when she was almost 90 years old. The challenge led to a decision in 1953 that segregated public facilities in the nation’s capital, previously sanctioned under laws passed in the aftermath of the Civil War, were illegal.

The following year, in May 1954, Terrell’s life’s work, which had begun seven decades before, found its culmination in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in the nation’s public schools. Terrell lived just long enough to savor this historic victory. She died on July 24, 1954, but is remembered for her legacy of academic achievement, eloquent writing, and tireless activism.


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