Mary Church Terrell

By Sala Thanassi

Mary Church Terrell in her twenties. 1883. Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell, by Alison M. Parker, ‎The University of North Carolina Press, 2020, p. 32

Mary Church Terrell is heralded as a prominent civil rights activist and suffragist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As one of the first Black women to earn a college degree, she dedicated her life to fighting against racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. Her legacy continues to inspire generations of women and people of color in the fight for justice and equality.

Section One: A Brief Biography

Mary “Mollie” Eliza Church Terrell was born on September 23, 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee, just as the Civil War was coming to a close. In likeness to Ida B. Wells’ father James Wells, Terrell’s parents were the children of enslaved women and their white slaveholders, and neither was freed until the end of the Civil War (Parker 5). Both became business owners during the Reconstruction era. Terrell’s father, Robert Reed Church, fought an uphill battle as a businessman who successfully defied local regulations meant to constrain Black citizens, and became one of the South’s first Black millionaires (Michals). Louisa Ayres Church, her mother, owned a hair salon frequented by affluent residents of Memphis. Like the parents of Frances Watkins Harper and Ida B. Wells, Robert Church and Louisa Church valued a meaningful education for their children. She is credited with enrolling Terrell in the Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for her elementary and secondary education. Terrell later attended Oberlin College, where she earned her Bachelor’s degree and was one of the first Black women to graduate in 1884. She later earned a master’s degree in education from Columbia University.

“1854 engraving, Antioch College at Yellow Springs, Ohio. It opened in 1852 and was founded by the Christian Connection.”

Section Two: Terrell’s Teaching Background

Following her graduation from Oberlin College, Terrell pursued a teaching position for Black youth. She wrote to several schools and was offered several positions before securing a teaching post at Wilberforce University, the school where Frances Ellen Watkins Harper taught domestic science 34 years earlier. She was among the very few Black women to meet the newly emerging requirement of a college graduate degree. Terrell resisted family expectations to pursue a teaching position: in her autobiography she stated, “In the South for nearly three hundred years ‘real ladies’ did not work, and my father was thoroughly imbued with that idea. He wanted his daughter to be a ‘lady’” (Terrell 93). As she was rejecting her father’s wishes for her to refrain from teaching, she chose Wilberforce University due to its location in the North: she wrote, “Wilberforce University is situated about three miles from Xenia, Ohio. This was one of the reasons I decided to go there… I knew my father would be less opposed to my teaching in the North than in the South, and I wanted to placate him as much as I could” (Terrell 93). Upon joining the staff at Wilberforce, she began teaching five classes in subjects dissimilar to each other, and was secretary of the faculty and regularly wrote the voluminous minutes in longhand. She also played the organ for the church services every Sunday morning and evening, and spent one night a week in choir rehearsal. After her second year at Wilberforce she was invited to study abroad, a prospect she measured heavily against her contending request to teach at one of the first public high schools for Black children, the M Street Colored High School in Washington, D.C. She turned down the offer to study abroad, a decision that took great effort. She decided to move to Washington soon thereafter, where she met her future husband and fellow teacher, Robert Heberton Terrell. They were married in 1891.

In 1906, Mary Church Terrell began teaching at the M Street (Colored) High School, today’s Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School.

Section Three: The National Association of Colored Women

In 1892, Terrell’s old friend Thomas Moss was lynched in Memphis by a group of white citizens because his business competed with theirs (Michals). Terrell joined Ida B. Wells-Barnett in anti-lynching campaigns, and in addition to attending Woman Suffrage meetings, she became more involved in Black women’s clubs in the years following. From her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, she writes, “Having observed from attending the Woman Suffrage meetings how much may be accomplished through organization, I entered enthusiastically into club work among the women of my own group… As soon as the idea of uniting their forces outside the church dawned upon [Black women], it took definite, tangible form quickly, and women of all classes and conditions seized upon it with enthusiasm” (Terrell 185). In 1892, a group of educated Black women in Washington (including Terrell) formed The Colored Women’s League, and Terrell was appointed Chairman of the Educational Committee. Terrell participated in the small-scale night school the League offered, teaching a class in English Literature and a class in German several nights a week (Terrell 185). 

The Colored Women’s League was not the only organization for progressive Black women at the time. The summer of 1895 saw the establishment of the Federation of Afro-American women in Boston, whose aims were similar to those of The Colored Women’s League: they centered on promoting social welfare and education amongst Black women, and addressing issues such as poverty and discrimination. The club’s founding members were activists and educators much like Terrell, they included: Fannie Barrier Williams, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, Harriet Tubman, Lucy Stone, Adella Hunt Logan, Florida Ridley, Eliza J. Gibbons, and Maria Louise Baldwin. In her essay “The Club Movement” Fannie Barrier Williams states, “the club movement among [Black women] is something deeper than a mere imitation of white women. It is nothing less than the organized anxiety of women who have become intelligent enough to recognize their own low social condition and strong enough to initiate the forces of reform” (Gates Jr., Jarrett 55).

 “The club movement among [Black women] is something deeper than a mere imitation of white women. It is nothing less than the organized anxiety of women who have become intelligent enough to recognize their own low social condition and strong enough to initiate the forces of reform.”

 Fannie Barrier Williams

After a debate over which of the two organizations was the first to become national in scope, it was decided to merge the organizations into one. Terrell was elected chairman by the joint committee (consisting of seven women appointed from the League and seven from the Federation), and it was decided to call the organization the National Association of Colored Women (Terrell 187). After a rigorous voting process that often resulted in a tied vote, Terrell received a majority of the votes cast and was elected the first president of the NACW.

“Advertisement for Mary Church Terrell Lecture, June 21, 1905, at Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church, Cincinnati, Ohio”

After the National Association of Colored Women was founded, Terrell presided over three conventions: one in Nashville in 1897 (the year after the NACW was formed), one in Chicago in 1899, and one in Buffalo, New York, in 1901 (Terrell 188-189). She gained much recognition at these conventions. Terrell’s passion for education had only strengthened from her establishment as president, and she took it upon herself to raise money to create and maintain a series of kindergartens that appealed to the Association for aid. At the close of the convention in Buffalo, when she had served two terms, the delegates unanimously voted to make her honorary president for life.

Section Four: The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893

In June of 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition (otherwise known as the Chicago World’s Fair) drew international crowds to Chicago in their stated mission to showcase the technological, cultural, and artistic achievements of the United States and other nations around the world. In establishing the structure of the fair, President Benjamin Harrison failed to include any racial minorities in his 208-person Board of National Commissioners, the official administrative body (Paddon, Turner 19-20). Many of the exhibits at the fair’s Women’s Building actively excluded Black women as well, and Terrell joined an organized group of her colleagues and other Black women to protest the exclusion. This protest was held during the last week of the fair and was called the “Congress of Colored Women.” Intent on showcasing the achievements of Black women and demanding recognition within the larger women’s suffrage movement, The Congress of Colored Women was a significant event in the fight for civil rights. Terrell’s leadership was a crucial part in the impact of the Congress, and helped lay the foundation for future activism. (Bertuca, Hartman, Neumeister)

The work of Terrell and the Congress of Colored women as they championed the recognition of Black women at the Chicago World’s Fair connected to other movements that challenged gender and racial inequity. These movements included the protests around the exclusion of Black women from the Women’s Department at the 1884 New Orleans Cotton Centennial: nine years before Terrell joined The Congress of Colored Women in their protest, Black women’s groups and activists organized an event called the Colored Women’s Congress to advocate for and showcase the accomplishments of the Black women left out of the 1884 Cotton Centennial. The Congress featured speeches and presentations on the subjects of education, women’s rights, health, and more. The passion shown by the Colored Women’s Congress of New Orleans in 1884 was no less powerful than the passion displayed by the Congress of Colored Women of Chicago in 1893. The unwavering determination for equal representation would only grow in strength, and take up arms time and time again, against the racism that plagued the World’s Fairs of the 19th century.

The Woman’s Era

“The Woman’s Era” was a monthly newspaper  published by Josephine Ruffin and her daughter, Florida Ruffin Ridley. It helped the Boston group become “a communication nerve center for inter-city cooperation”, functioning as a forum for news concerning Black women throughout the country. Women who submitted news for their regions included Mary Church Terrell in Washington, Fannie Barrier Williams of Chicago, Alice Ruth Moore (later known as Alice Dunbar-Nelson) of New Orleans, Victoria Earle Matthews of New York, Josephine Silone-Yates of Kansas City, and Elizabeth Ensley of Denver.

“The Women’s Era’ vol. 2 no. 2, featuring an interview with Terrell on her initiative through the NACW to fund kindergartens.”

“I believed it was the duty of colored women to do everything in their power to save the children during the early, impressionable period of their life… It is gratifying to recall that the first fund started by the organization was raised to help the children”

Terrell (189-190).

Works Cited

“1854 engraving, Antioch College at Yellow Springs, Ohio.” Old Paper Studios, 1854. Accessed 23 Apr. 2023.

“Advertisement for Mary Church Terrell Lecture, June 21, 1905, at Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church, Cincinnati, Ohio.” The College of Wooster, 23 Jan. 2019. Accessed 24 Apr. 2023.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis and Jarrett, Gene Andrew. The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892-1938. Princeton University Press, 2021.

“In 1906, Mary Church Terrell began teaching at the M Street (Colored) High School, today’s Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School.” Wikipedia photo, scanned from a public postcard. Accessed 23 Apr. 2023.,_DC_1906.jpg.

“Mary Terrell in her twenties.” 1883. Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell, by Alison M. Parker, The University of North Carolina Press, 2020, p. 32.

Michals, Dr. Debra. “Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954).” National Women’s History Museum, 2017. Accessed 23 Apr. 2023.

Terrell, Mary Church. A Colored Woman in a White World. Humanity Books, 2005.

Women’s Era Club. “The Women’s Era” v.2:no.2, (1895:May). Ruffin, Josephine St. Pierre. Accessed 24 Apr. 2023.