Who was Mary Church Terrell?

Mary Church Terrell

Images Courtesy of NMAAHC, NYPL, and the National Archives

Short biography

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was an African American activist, educator, and suffragist. Her career spanned teaching in the Jim Crow Era, marching for the vote, and picketing segregated restaurants in the 1950s. Terrell was born free during the Civil War in Memphis. Alongside lifelong collaborator Anna Julia Cooper, she graduated from Oberlin College in 1884. In 1896, she founded the National Association of Colored Women and served as its first president. Collaborating with diverse activists from Ida B. Wells to Susan B. Anthony, in the first half of the twentieth century, Terrell was a tireless agitator for women’s and civil rights. After nearly a century of activism, she lived long enough to see the Supreme Court rule against school segregation, the culmination of a life devoted to education and freedom. Transcribing Terrell’s papers provides a valuable window into the long, proud history of Black women’s activism.

Key Moments in Terrell’s life

1863 – Born in Memphis, Tennessee.

1880 – Met Frederick Douglass at President James Garfield’s Inauguration

1884 – Graduated from Oberlin College, Ohio

1885 – Began teaching at Wilberforce University

1888 – Graduated with a Master’s degree in Education from Oberlin College

1895 – Created Douglass Day

1895 – Moves to Washington, D.C. to teach in the Latin Department of the M Street School

1896 – Founder of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW); served as first president until 1901

1904 – Published “Lynching from a Negro’s Point of View” in the North American Review

1909 – Charter member, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

1928 – Published “Phyllis Wheatley—An African Genius” in the Star of the West.

1940 – Published her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World

1948 – Awarded an honorary doctorate by Oberlin College

1950 – An 86 year old Terrell protested segregated restaurants in Washington, D.C.

1954 – Passed away in Annapolis, Maryland

Image courtesy of Oberlin College Archives

Reflection Questions

  1. What did it mean for Terrell to live a life devoted to fighting injustice and creating opportunities for African Americans?
  2. What was it like to be an intellectual, activist and educator during Jim Crow?
  3. What strategies did Terrell devise to address these challenges?
  4. How did Terrell’s deep commitments to Black education, organizations, and political power shape her legacy?

Learn more about Terrell

Mary Church Terrell: A Resource Guide, by Angela McMillian, Library of Congress

Mary Church Terrell House at 326 T Street, NW, Washington, DC (National Park Service exhibit)

Mary Church Terrell: An Original Oberlin Activist

Perspectives on Terrell

“Toward a History of Access: The Case of Mary Church Terrell,” by Elizabeth McHenry, ALH (warning: behind paywall)

For continued study

Mary Church Terrell Papers, at the Library of Congress

Mary Church Terrell Papers at the Moorland Spingarn Research Center, Howard University

Mary Church Terrell Papers, Oberlin College Archives