Mary Church Terrell may be one of the best-known Black female activists in the late 19th and early 20th century United States. She fought for racial equality and women’s suffrage when neither were the norm. Here is her story.
Mary Eliza Church, nicknamed “Mollie,” was born on Sept. 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee. Both of her parents were mixed-race former slaves, who prospered once given their freedom. Her father, Robert Reed Church, was a real estate broker whose success made him the first Black millionaire in the South. Her mother, Louisa Ayres, owned a hair salon which was patronized by the wealthy and elite during a time when the races didn’t mix and female entrepreneurs were rare.
Although her parents divorced when Mary was young, they still supported their children financially and placed a high value on education. They allowed Mary to attend prestigious schools like the Antioch College Laboratory/Model School in Ohio and Oberlin Public School for elementary and secondary education. She then enrolled in Oberlin College, taking a four-year ‘gentleman’s course’ in the Classics (which included Greek and Latin) instead of the expected two-year ladies’ course, earning her bachelor’s in 1884. She went on to study education and earned her master’s degree in 1888, becoming one of the first two Black American women to earn a master’s degree. (The other was her classmate Anna Julia Cooper.)
After graduation, she taught modern languages at the historically Black Wilburforce College in Ohio for two years before moving to Washington D.C. in 1887 to teach Latin at the M Street Colored High School (now Paul Laurence Dunbar High School), the first Black public high school in the country. It was there that she met and fell in love with Robert “Berto” Heberton Terrell, a fellow teacher. They married in 1891 and had two daughters, one of whom was adopted.
Mary’s life changed forever in 1892, when a dear friend of hers, Thomas Moss, was lynched in Memphis by white men simply because his business competed with theirs. Hurt and outraged, Mary joined forces with Ida B. Wells-Barnett in anti-lynching campaigns, while working as superintendent of the M Street School, the first woman to ever hold that position.
But her heart was really in the philosophy of “racial uplift,” which held that by advancing in education, career and community service, Black people could lift up their whole race and end discrimination. Based on this idea, Mary and six other women formed the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. Her words—“Lifting as we climb”—became the NACW motto. The organization emphasized Black women helping one another and provided opportunities for advancement outside of the traditional church setting, as well as establishing the first kindergarten in the Washington D.C.-area.
Mary’s track record as a teacher, superintendent and her work with the NACW led to her being appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education from 1895 to 1906. She was the first Black woman in the United States to hold such a position. As NACW president, she spoke and wrote extensively, continuing more than four decades of prolific writing about lynching and what it was like to be a black woman. She even chronicled her life in an autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World (1940).
If that wasn’t enough, Mary was also a charter member of the Colored Women’s League of Washington (1892) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1909). She also founded the National Association of Colored Women (1896) and served as its first national president; co-founded the College Alumnae Club (1910), later renamed the National Association of University Women; and was a founding member of the National Association of College Women (1923).
Marcy campaigned vigorously for women’s suffrage, especially Black women. She joined the National Woman’s Party and participated in picketing the White House, demanding that President Wilson give women the right to vote. She said it was important for her to speak up because she was a Black woman, “the only group in this country that has two such huge obstacles to surmount…both sex and race.”
Once women won the right to vote, Mary turned her attention to other civil rights. In 1948, she successfully sued the American Association of University Women (AAUW), becoming their first Black member. In 1950, at age 86, she protested segregation by participating in a sit-in at the John R. Thompson Restaurant in Washington, D.C. and lived to see the end of segregation in 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled public school segregation was illegal in Brown vs. Board of Education.
She died only two months later on July 24, 1954, in Highland Beach, Maryland, having seen her two pet causes—racial equality and women’s suffrage—made legal by the U.S. government.