Lesson 1: Mary Church Terrell and Segregated Education

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Essential Question

Is separate education ever equal?


See our page for a short biography of Mary Church Terrell.

Directions for Teachers/Facilitators

Explain and Brief Students

Teachers please read and distribute the short biography of Mary Church Terrell (use active reading strategies in accordance with your students’ levels and needs).

Discuss that America has a long history of segregating education. Black and indigenous children were very often legally separated from white children in most ways but especially in the classroom. Therefore Black and other children of color children in America and received a different education in different schools, with different teachers resources and often with very different outcomes for children and communities than white children. Separation by race created segregation. And segregation was practiced in American classrooms. Segregation was enforced through school districts and social habits. Activists had to organize and work very hard to ensure that all people including children were afforded equal rights under the law. Please read and or distribute bio on Mary Church Terrell. Explain that Terrell was an activist who worked on several issues including desegregation in education. Terrell worked to integrate classes and no matter how hard she never gave up hope. The first primary document you will analyze was written by Terrell to the president of Oberlin College where she received her degree questioning the segregation of her daughters in the residence hall.

Vocabulary Terms

Please help students learn these terms before class. They will create a shared language and basic understanding. Students can consult this list of terms, look up the words in a dictionary, and practice spelling and using them in sentences.

  1. Segregation: the act or practice of separating people from each other especially majority versus minority groups
  2. Integration: the act or practice of combining/integrating groups together
  3. Plessy vs Ferguson: 1896 Supreme Court decision that made separate but equal legal in America
  4. Equality: being equal in status, rights opportunities and state guaranteed privileges
  5. Prejudice: negative opinions about people, places and or things not based on facts-often based on stereotypes.
  6. Racism: a system of advantages based on race that privileges one race over another
  7. Protest: statements or actions that expresses disagreement/disapproval of something
  8. Activism: someone who does not let a situation or problems go without doing something to make it better
  9. Rights: freedoms we have that are protected by laws
  10. Constitution: a written set of rules that control how a country/organization is governed.

Suggested Activities

Activity #1: Compare and Contrast Images

Using the photographs [[do we want to add this link or include the photos on this page?]] compare and contrast what you notice in the photos. Does this matter?

What do you notice about these two schools? Are they in the same state? Who built these two schools? How are they different? How are they the same? What do these differences mean? Which school would you want to attend? Why? What control did the students who went to those schools have over which school they attended?

Activity #2: Discuss videos on school desegregation

Choose one (1) video to watch with your students from the list below. Discuss and or complete the suggested activity.

PBS Video on Desegregation in California [8:37 minutes] (middle to high school)

Did you know the history of school desegregation before this movie? How do you feel about what you have seen? How brave did these students have to be to work for a better education? Are schools better just because of the color of the students? What actually makes the difference?

PBS Digital Studios Video on the history of Desegregation in Education [5:23 minutes] (middle to high school)

Did you know the history of school desegregation before this movie? How do you feel about what you have seen? How brave did these students have to be to work for a better education? Are schools better just because of the color of the students? What actually makes the difference?Read/listen to the letter Terrell wrote. Students can listen or read or a combination of both to the letter. Discuss. What are some of the issues that Terrell raises to challenge segregation at Oberlin? What is the tone of her letter? Why? What do you think Terrell will do if the president of Oberlin will not integrate? Does this matter?

Watch/log into the site—to learn the difference between a primary and secondary source.

Activity #3: Transcribe Mary Church Terrell’s papers

Students will transcribe primary documents from Terrell’s archives at the Library of Congress. Please walk students through the process of logging on to We the People and follow the directions to begin transcribing. After transcribing, discuss the experience. What did you learn about segregation in education? What do you believe and why? Explain.

Summative Exercise & Homework

Write a letter/send a voice note/make a Tiktok video explain to Terrell what has happened since her time to segregated education.

Feedback Form

After the lesson, we would be delighted to receive your feedback. Your input helps us improve these resources and secure funding to provide more!

Link to the feedback form

Additional Resources

Please see our short biography of Mary Church Terrell.

Historical Autobiography (Suggested Links)

Activist Autobiography (Suggested Links)

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