MARY CHURCH TERRELL

MARY CHURCH TERRELL

1863-1954

Mary Church Terrell, an extremely successful advocate of women’s rights — particularly black women’s rights — grew up as the wealthy daughter of real estate broker Robert Church. He sent his daugh¬ ter to Oberlin College, from which she graduated with a master’s degree in 1888.

Mary Church Terrell was a spirited, intelligent woman who was quickly offered a position at Wilberforce University. In an age when wealthy women did not work, her father was scandalized, but no matter how he threatened, he did not stop her from accepting the position and encouraging oth¬ er women to join academia: “He disinherit¬ ed me….refused to write to me for a year because I went to Wilberforce to teach.

Fur¬ ther, I was ridiculed and told that no man would want to marry a woman who studied higher mathematics. I said I’d take a chance and run the risk.”It was this friction that inspired Terrell to take up the issue of women’s suffrage. And it was the lynching of three innocent black men in 1891 that inspired her to join theanti-lynching campaign begun by Ida B. Wells-Barnett (see no. 27).

One of the three victims had been a dear friend, and Church was compelled to con¬ tact Frederick Douglass (see no. 14) and ask his support. Together, the two of them approached US President Benjamin Harri¬ son and asked that he condemn lynching in his next address to Congress. His refusal was such a bitter disappointment that Ter¬ rell was moved to a lifetime of service against lynching and all other crimes relat¬ ed to racism and sexism.

She married Robert Terrell, and imme¬ diately turned down a position as registrar at Oberlin College. A appointed to the Washington, DC Board of Education in 1895, she became the first African-Ameri¬ can woman on the board, and her influen¬ tial new associates became invaluable sup¬ porters of her lifetime campaigns, which she never laid down.

Working with Susan B. Anthony and Jane Addams, Mary Church Terrell helped the National American Woman Suffrage Association pass the 19th Amendment. She also taught white women suffragettes to include African-American women in their actions, even if it threatened their support from the South.

Terrell was a founder of the Women Wage-Earners Association, which sup¬ ported black women employees. She was one of the founders of the National Asso¬ ciation of Colored Women (NACW) and a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Dedicated to the rights of all women, and the fair treatment of all men, Mary Church Terrell put pressure on the American Asso¬ ciation of University Women to open their doors to black women, and at the age of 90 headed a picket line that pressured restau¬ rants into desegregation.