Mary Church Terrell, 1863-1954

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Woman Category: Academy & Education and Activism & FeminismWoman Tags: 19th Amendment Centennial Anniversary, African-American Women, Suffragist, and WDC Metro Area Women

  • HerStory

    Suffragist and civil rights activist, one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, and the first African-American woman in the US to serve in a school board of a major city.

    Born in Memphis, Tennessee, to a middle-class African-American family. Her father was a real estate investor, and her mother was a successful entrepreneur and owned a hair salon. After graduation, she attended Oberlin College – the first college in the US to accept female and African-American students. Terrell was one of the first African-American women to get a college degree when she earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Classics, after taking the “gentleman’s path” – learning four years as opposed to the two years for women.
    While learning for a Master’s Degree in Education, Terrell began teaching modern languages at Wilberforce University, and after graduation, she moved to Washington, DC, for a short time before traveling to study in Europe. There she became active in social matters, especially empowering black women. At the age of 28, she married Robert Heberton Terrell, they had four children, only one survived to adulthood, and they later adopted a girl.
    Since her college years, Terrell was an active suffragist and was a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Due to the NAWSA’s objection to including African-American women in its agenda, in 1892, Terrell, alongside six other women, established the Colored Women’s League. As the president of the organization, she decided to combine efforts with similar organizations across the US and helped to form the National Association of Colored Women and served as its president. She also founded the National Association of College Women, which established kindergartens and training programs in Washington, DC. In recognition of her personal achievements as well as the organizations she founded, she was appointed to the Board of Education of the District of Columbia, the first black woman in the US to serve in such a position.
    Following the 19th amendment ratification, Terrel shifted her focus towards fighting segregation. In her biography “Colored Woman in a White World,” she is outlining her personal experiences with discrimination. In her 80’s, she protested against segregated restaurants, theaters, and other establishments in Washington, DC, and at the age of 86, she became the first African-American admitted to the Washington chapter of the American Association of University Women.

    “And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long”

    “And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • Her father is considered to be the first African-American millionaire in the South.
    • She was fluent in French, German, and Italian.
    • She declined a registrarship position from Oberlin College. Had she agreed, she would have become the first black woman to obtain this position.
    • Her husband, Robert Heberton Terrell, was the first black municipal court judge in Washington, DC.
    • Her home in the LeDroit Park neighborhood of Washington is a National Historic Landmark.
    • Oberlin College’s main library is named in her honor.
    • She was among 12 pioneers of civil rights commemorated in a US Postal Service postage stamp series.
  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * Books she wrote
    * Books about her

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Mary Church Terrell Documentary

    This is my Black History project for Social Studies class. This is a documentary about Mary Church Terrell and I made it like one from the Biography Channel.

    Mrs. Mary helped a lot of people by being a teacher and an activist. She worked for voting rights for women and was one of the first members of the NAACP. She worked for the rights of black people that were treated unfairly by the police. She also worked for the education to be available to everyone, no matter their race. She worked hard for those around her all the way until she died. She was a great leader and a wonderful hero.

  • Photo credit - WWP team