Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was a civil rights activist and women’s rights leader. One of the first women of color to earn a degree, she became an outstanding social activist, who spoke in defense of women’s rights and denounced segregation (Smith 2009). Her main focus was the legalized racism established in the Jim Crow laws, which affected her directly.
Terrell was inspired to fight in the political arena after a crowd of white people in Memphis lynched her lifelong friend Tom Moss because of his success in grocery business. It was in 1892. Together with Frederick Du Bois, Mary Church Terrell met with President Benjamin Harrison and asked him to speak out against violence on the ground of racial hatred. Harrison listened to them, but he did not speak on the issue in public (Curry 2011). It was that year that Mary Church Terrell became the head of the Colored Women’s League of the District of Columbia. After this group merged with the National Federation of Afro-American Women and other African-American women organizations in 1896, Terrell became the first president of what was named the National Association of Colored Women. It was at that position that Terrell became famous, since she fought for equal rights for women, in particular black women. Between 1995 and 1911, Terrell served a member of the District of Columbia’s school board. At this position, she fought for equal treatment of African American students and teachers and against racial segregation in the educational system. When the racial disturbance broke out in Brownsville, Texas, back in 1906, Terrell joined in protest and addressed Secretary of War Taft to withhold action against the black troops (Smith 2009).

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In 1949, Mary Church Terrell got elected chair of the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of District of Columbia Anti-Discrimination Laws. Together with other committee members, Terrell challenged the anti-discrimination laws and fought against blacks being segregated in the District’s public facilities. Terrell, in particular, took part in demonstrations and targeted Thompson’s Restaurant, which denied service to them. The case went before the Supreme Court, and the latter ruled in their favor. This initiated desegregation in Washington, D.C. Terrell also a noted public lecturer and often spoke on themes related to racism and how it affects African Americans. In 1920, the activist worked with other women in securing that the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and women’s suffrage became a reality. Terrell described her personal struggles against racial discrimination in the autobiography A Colored Woman in a White World, in 1940 (Smith, 2009). In this way, Terrell made a great contribution into black people’s struggle for equality and advanced black women’s rights.

  • Smith, Jessie Carney. “Terrell, Mary Church (1863–1954).” In Freedom Facts and Firsts: 400 Years of the African American Civil Rights Experience, by Jessica Carney Smith, and Linda T. Wynn. Visible Ink Press, 2009.
  • Curry, V. E. Mary Church Terrell: A Historical Case Study of a Pioneer of Froebelian Kindergartens for African American Children 1896-1901 (Order No. 3457143), 2011. Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (873552981).