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Mary Church Terrell (September 23, 1863 – July 24, 1954) was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, and became known as a national activist for civil rights and suffrage; in 1909 she was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She taught and was a principal at an academic high school in Washington, DC; in 1896 she was the first African-American woman in the United States to be appointed to a school board of a major city, serving in the District of Columbia until 1906. Terrell led several important associations, including the National Association of Colored Women.
Terrell was the daughter of former mixed-race slaves who helped build the black elite in Memphis, Tennessee after the American Civil War. Her father Robert Reed Church became a wealthy business entrepreneur and was widely considered the first African-American millionaire in the South.
Through her father, Terrell met activist Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, director of the influential Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. She was especially close to Douglass and worked with him on several civil rights campaigns. Shortly after her marriage to Robert Terrell, she considered retiring from activism to focus on family life. Douglass persuaded her that her talents required her to stay in public life.
In 1896, Terrell became the first president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women. NACW members established day nurseries and kindergartens, and helped orphans. Also in 1896, she founded the National Association of College Women, which later became the National Association of University Women (NAUW). The League started a training program and kindergarten before these were included in the Washington, DC public schools.
Combined with her achievements as a principal, the success of the League’s educational initiatives led to Terrell’s appointment to the District of Columbia Board of Education, 1895-1906. She was the first black woman in the United States to hold such a position. She was also an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She was particularly concerned that the organization continue fighting for suffrage among black women. With Josephine St.Pierre Ruffin, she formed the Federation of Afro-American Women.
Historians have generally emphasized Terrell’s role as an activist and community leader during the Progressive Era. She also had a prosperous career as a journalist (she identified as a writer). Using the pen name “Euphemia Kirk,” she published in both the black and white press to promote the African American Women’s Club Movement (Terrell, 1940). She wrote for a variety of newspapers “published either by or in the interest of colored people (Terrell, 1940, p. 222),” such as the A.M.E. Church Review of Philadelphia, PA; the Southern Workman of Hampton, VA; the Indianapolis Freeman;the Afro-American of Baltimore; the Washington Tribune; the Chicago Defender; the New York Age; the Voice of the Negro; the Women’s World; and the Norfolk Journal and Guide (Terrell, 1940). She also contributed to the Washington Evening Star and the Washington Post (Terrell, 1940). She aligned the African-American Women’s Club Movement and the overall struggle of black women and the black race for equality. In 1892 she was elected as the first woman president of the prominent Washington DC black debate organization Bethel Literary and Historical Society.
In 1904 Terrell was invited to speak at the International Congress of Women, held in Berlin, Germany. She was the only black woman at the conference. She received an enthusiastic ovation when she honored the host nation by delivering her address in German. She delivered the speech in French, and concluded with the English version.
In 1909, Terrell was one of two black woman (journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett was the other) invited to sign the “Call” and to attend the first organizational meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), becoming a founding member. In 1913-14, she helped organize the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. More than a quarter-century later, she helped write its creed that set up a code of conduct for black women.
In World War I (WWI), Terrell was involved with the War Camp Community Service, which supported recreation for servicemen. Later it aided in issues related to the demobilization of Negro servicemen. As WWI was winding down, Terrell and her daughter Phyllis joined Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, of the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CUWS), to picket the White House on issues related to the need of black veterans for jobs. Terrell was a delegate to the International Peace Conference after the end of the war. While in England, she stayed with H. G. Wells and his wife at their invitation.
Terrell worked actively in the women’s suffrage movement, which pushed for enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Active in the Republican Party, she was president of the Women’s Republican League during Warren G. Harding’s 1920 presidential campaign and the first election in which all American women were given the right to vote. But Southern states from 1890 to 1908 had passed voter registration and election laws that effectively disfranchised most blacks. Those restrictions were not fully overturned until after congressional passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Terrell wrote an autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World (1940).
In 1950 she started what would be a successful fight to integrate eating places in the District of Columbia. In the 1890s the District of Columbia had formalized segregation as did states in the South. Before then, local integration laws dating to the 1870s had required all eating-place proprietors “to serve any respectable, well-behaved person regardless of color, or face a $1,000 fine and forfeiture of their license.” In 1949, Dr. Terrell and colleagues Clark F. King, Essie Thompson, and Arthur F. Elmer entered the segregated Thompson Restaurant. When refused service, they promptly filed a lawsuit. Attorney Ringgold Hart, representing Thompson, argued on April 1, 1950, that the District laws were unconstitutional and later won the case against restaurant segregation. In the three years pending a decision in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Terrell targeted other restaurants. Her tactics included boycotts, picketing, and sit-ins. Finally, on June 8, 1953, the court ruled that segregated eating places in Washington, DC, were unconstitutional.
After the age of 80, Terrell continued to participate in picket lines, protesting the segregation of restaurants and theaters. During her senior years, she also succeeded in persuading the local chapter of the American Association of University Women to admit black members.
She lived to see the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, holding unconstitutional the racial segregation of public schools. Terrell died two months later at the age of 90, on July 24, 1954, in Anne Arundel General Hospital. It was the week before the NACW was to hold its annual meeting, that year at her town of Annapolis, Maryland.