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Mary Terrell (Church)

Birthplace: Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee, United States
Death: 1954 (90-91)
Maryland, United States
Place of Burial: Lincoln Memorial Cemetery Suitland, Prince George's County, Maryland
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Robert Reed Church and Louisa Church
Wife of Judge Robert Heberton Terrell
Mother of Phyllis Langston and Mary Beaudreaux
Sister of Thomas Ayers Church
Half sister of Robert Reed Church, Jr. and Annette Church

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Immediate Family

About Mary Terrell

Civil rights activist and suffragist. She was born in Memphis, Tennessee,the daughter of Robert Church and Louisa Ayers, both former slaves. Robert was the son of his white master, Charles Church. During the Memphis race riots in 1866 Mary's father was shot in the head and left for dead. He survived the attack and eventually became a successful businessman. He speculated in the property market and was considered to be the wealthiest black man in the South. Although she was fair skinned enough to "pass" as a white person if she had so chosen, she placed herself firmly in the struggle for African American empowerment.

She was an outstanding student and after graduating from Oberlin College, Ohio, in 1884, she taught at a black secondary school in Washington and at Wilberforce University in Ohio. Through her father, Mary met Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. She was especially close to Douglass and worked with him on several civil rights campaigns. After a two year traveling and studying in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and England (1888-1890), Mary returned to the United States where she married Robert Heberton Terrell, a lawyer who was later to become the first black municipal court judge in Washington. In 1892 Church's friend, Tom Moss, a grocer from Memphis, was lynched by a white mob. Church and Frederick Douglass had a meeting with Benjamin Harrison concerning this case but the president was unwilling to make a public statement condemning lynching. Terrell was an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and was particularly concerned about ensuring the organization continued to fight for black women getting the vote. With Josephine Ruffin she formed the Federation of Afro-American Women and in 1896 she became the first president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women. In 1904 she was invited to speak at the Berlin International Congress of Women. She was the only black woman at the conference and, determined to make a good impression, she created a sensation when she gave her speech in German, French and English.

During the First World War Terrell and her daughter Phillis joined Alice Paul and Lucy Burns of the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage (CUWS) in picketing the White House. She was particularly upset when in one demonstration outside of the White House, leaders of the party asked the black suffragist, Ida Wells-Barnett, not to march with other members. It was feared that identification with black civil rights would lose the support of white women in the South. Despite pressure from people like Mary White Ovington, leaders of the CUWS refused to publicly state that they endorsed black female suffrage.

In 1909 Terrell joined with Ovington to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The first meeting of the NAACP was held on 12th February, 1909. Early members included Josephine Ruffin, Jan Addams, Inez Milholland, William B. DuBois, Charles Darrow, Charles Edward Russell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Terrell wrote several books including her autobiography, "A Colored Woman in a White World" (1940). In the early 1950s she was involved in the struggle against segregation in public eating places in Washington. Her motto was "Keep on going, keep on insisting, keep on fighting injustice."

Mary Church Terrell, a writer, educator, and activist, co-founded the National Association of Colored Women and served as the organization’s first president. Known as “Mollie” to her family, Church who was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1863, lived a life of privilege due to the economic success of her parents, both former slaves. Her mother, Louisa Ayres Church, owned a hair salon, while her father, Robert Reed Church, was the first black millionaire in the South due to his business and real estate dealings. Church's parents divorced when she and her brother were young, and her father remarried.

Church left her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, at an early age to enroll at the elementary school at the Antioch College laboratory school in Ohio. She remained in Ohio to attend both Oberlin Academy and Oberlin College, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Classical Languages in 1884. She earned a Master's degree from Oberlin four years later.

Although her father disapproved of her working, Church became a teacher after graduating from Oberlin. She taught at Wilberforce College in Ohio before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1887 to join the faculty at M Street Colored High School, which later became Dunbar High School. While in Washington, she met fellow teacher Anna Julia Cooper, as well as the man she would marry, Robert Heberton Terrell, chairman of the school’s language department. Since married women could not work as teachers in Washington, D.C., she resigned when they wed in 1891.

One year after her wedding, tragic news from her hometown motivated Terrell to become a social activist. In 1892, she learned that Thomas Moss, a close friend from Memphis, had been lynched. After Terrell’s and Frederick Douglass’s appeals to President Benjamin Harrison failed to produce a public condemnation of lynching, she formed the Colored Women’s League in Washington to address social problems facing black communities. Four years later, Terrell helped create the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), and became its first president. The NACW adopted the motto, “Lifting As We Climb,” and promoted racial uplift through education and community activism.

During her tenure as president of the NACW, from 1896 to 1901, Terrell became a well-known speaker and writer in the United States and overseas. She supported the women’s suffrage movement, even as segregationists tried to exclude black women from the cause. In 1898 and 1900, Terrell attended the biennial meetings of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), where she stressed that African Americans had to confront sexual and racial barriers. During a visit to Germany in 1904, she presented a speech to the International Council of Women entirely in the German language.

Terrell lent her support to several political causes. An enthusiastic member of the Republican Party, she worked as president of the Women’s Republican League in Washington, D.C. She also accepted an appointment from the Republican Party to direct a program for black women in the eastern United States. At the same time, Terrell served on Washington’s Board of Education in an unpaid position from 1895 to 1901, and again from 1906 to 1911. In 1909, Terrell signed the charter that established the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP).

In addition to founding and chairing numerous organizations, Terrell also used her writing to advance her social and political interests. Her scholarly articles, poems, and short stories about race and gender appeared in numerous journals and magazines. In 1940 she wrote her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, which details her own battles with gender and race discrimination in the United States.

After World War II, Terrell joined the burgeoning efforts to end legal segregation in Washington, D.C. She lived to see the desegregation of eating facilities in the capital city, which occurred in 1953. One year later, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Mary Church Terrell died in Highland Beach, Maryland, on July 24, 1954 slightly more than two months after the decision was handed down. She was 90.

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Mary Terrell's Timeline

Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee, United States
April 2, 1898
Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, United States
Age 91
Maryland, United States
Lincoln Memorial Cemetery Suitland, Prince George's County, Maryland