Fearless Females: Mary Church Terrell

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.

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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.

 

Fearless Females: Estelle Massey Osborne

In honor of Nurses Week (May 6-12), this month we’ll learn the amazing story of Estelle Massey Osborne, who fought against racial discrimination in nursing. The Rory Meyers College of Nursing at NYU says of her: “Few Americans helped to change the face of nursing in the 20th-century more than Estelle Massey Osborne.”

Estelle Massey was born on May 3, 1901, to Hall and Bettye Estelle Massey in Palestine, Texas. Her parents were uneducated and worked menial jobs, but they wanted a better life for their children so they saved up and managed to send all 11 of them to college.

Estelle received her teaching certification from Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University). She taught for a while, but after being badly injured in a violent incident at a school where she was teaching, she decided to become a nurse. Estelle joined the first nursing class of St. Louis City Hospital #2 (later Homer G. Phillips Hospital), where she developed a passion for obstetrics. She graduated in 1923 and worked there as head nurse for three years.

In 1926 or 1927 she moved to New York City to teach at the Lincoln School of Nursing and the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, where she was the first Black instructor. She attended summer sessions at Teachers College of Columbia University. Then, in 1928, she received a scholarship from the Julius Rosenwald Fund—the first Black nurse ever awarded one—which enabled her to study full time. She received a bachelor’s degree in 1930, and a master’s in nursing education in 1931, the first Black nurse to do so.

The following year, she married Dr. Bedford N. Riddle, but they later divorced. In 1934 she worked as a researcher for the Rosenwald Fund, studying rural life in the deep South and trying to determine how to better enable people there to access health care services. Later the same year, Estelle became president of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses where she created strong relationships with the American Nurses Association (ANA), National League for Nursing, and National Organization for Public Health Nursing. With the bonds she formed, Estelle successfully lobbied to get these organizations to allow Black nurses and worked to improve post-graduation opportunities for Black nurses. By the time she left five years later, the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses’ membership had increased five-fold to nearly 950 nurses.

In 1940, Estelle returned to St. Louis and the Homer G. Phillips Hospital to become its first Black female director of nursing. When the U.S. entered WWII, she took up the cause, even though the Army and Navy both banned Black nurses. In 1943 she was appointed as a consultant to the National Nursing Council for War Service, where she acted as a liaison to nursing schools by recruiting desperately-needed student and graduate nurses. She also used this position to change discriminatory policies at nursing schools and in the military. Within two years, thanks to Estelle’s efforts, 20 more nursing schools admitted Black students, the Cadet Nurse Corps had inducted 2,000 Black members, and the Army and Navy both welcomed Black nurses.

In 1945, Estelle became the first Black instructor at New York University’s Department of Nursing Education. The following year, she received the Mary Mahoney Award from the ANA for her efforts to help Black nurses become integrated within the broader nursing community. In 1947, she married again, this time to Herman Osborne.

In addition to teaching nursing as the first Black faculty member at NYU Rory Meyers College of Nursing, she led many nursing associations, trying to increase Black membership and bridge the divide between white and Black associations. In 1948, she became the first Black member of the ANA board, where she served as a delegate to the International Council of Nurses. Estelle was also a member of the National Urban League, first vice-president of the National Council of Negro Women, and an honorary member of Chi Eta Phi Sorority and the American Academy of Nursing.

In 1954 she became Associate Professor of Nursing Education at the University of Maryland and five years later, the NYU Department of Nursing named Estelle “Nurse of the Year.” In 1966, she left her executive role at the National League for Nursing to retire.

Estelle died on December 12, 1981, at the age of 80. In 1984, the ANA inducted her into their Hall of Fame. Two scholarships bearing her name are given out annually by NYU Meyers and the Nurses Educational Fund.

Fearless Females: The First Black Woman to Receive a U.S. Patent

Did you know there is a bit of a debate over who was the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent? Judy Woodford Reed, Sarah E. Goode, and Miriam Benjamin are all credited with that feat, though there may have been others before them who did not reveal their race or gender. Learn more about each of these women below.

Judy Woodford Reed

The debate begins with Judy Woodford Reed (1826-1905). She was issued patent 305,474 for a “dough kneader and roller” on September 23, 1884. Her invention was for “improved design of rollers that helped the dough to mix more evenly while it was kept covered and protected.”

The patent is the only documentation that exists of her life. Historians have been able to piece together her birth and death dates, but little else is known about her—not even a photo remains. Judy was a former slave who likely could not read or write, as she signed the patent with an X instead of her name. Her attorney wrote her name on the patent for her, using her initials, J.W. Reed. And this is where the controversy comes in. Because Judy didn’t actually sign the patent with her name, some wonder if it was technically fully executed.

Sarah E. Goode

Those who follow the line of thought that Judy Woodford Reed’s patent wasn’t fully executed, credit Sarah E. Goode with being the first Black woman to receive a U.S. patent. She was issued a patent (322,177) for the cabinet bed on July 14, 1885, which was a pre-cursor to the better-known Murphy Bed.

Sarah was born into slavery in 1855 in Toledo, Ohio, and was described as being of mixed White and Black ancestry. She was granted her freedom at age 10 when the Civil War ended.

Sara was the daughter of a carpenter who married a “stair builder.” Later in life, she sold furniture in Chicago. Her invention came about when she heard customers from New York mention that space was at a premium in the city thanks to new laws that limited the height of buildings. That meant most tenements were only around 25×100 feet in size. Sarah’s creativity resulted in a fold out bed that when retracted, looked and functioned like a roll-top desk complete with compartments for storing pens, ink and stationery.

Miriam Benjamin

Though only a few sources credit Miriam Benjamin (1861-1947) with being the first, she is widely held to be the second (or perhaps third) Black woman to be granted a patent. She was born in Charleston, South Carolina, as a free Black woman. Miriam attended high school in Boston and eventually became a teacher in Washington D.C. before attending law school at Howard University and becoming a “solicitor of patents.”

Her first patent was for the gong and signal chair for hotels. As a frequent traveler, Miriam noticed that many hotels and restaurants seemed overstaffed for the number of customers needing service at any moment. This resulted in her devising a chair with a gong and signal attached meant to “reduce the expenses of hotels by decreasing the number of waiters and attendants, to add to the convenience and comfort of guests and to obviate the necessity of hand clapping or calling aloud to obtain the services of pages.” To summon a server or other attendant, a patron would press a button on the back of the chair, which would send a signal to the server as well as illuminate a light so the server could see which guest needed help.

Later on, Miriam’s system was adopted by the United States House of Representatives to summon pages and was the precursor to flight attendant call buttons in airplanes.

Miriam went on to patent other inventions and is believed to be one in the same with composer E.B. Miriam who wrote marches, including “The Boston Elite Two Step” and “The American Bugle Call,” which was adopted as the campaign song for Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 presidential campaign.