Mary Eliza Church Terrell was an African-American educator, writer and civil rights activist who advocated racial equality and women’s suffrage from the late 19th century. Terrell founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), also known as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC).
Born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee, her parents were former slaves who later became successful business owners. Her father, Robert Reed Church, became one of the South’s first African-American millionaires and her mother, Louisa Ayres Church, owned a hair salon.
Terrell had one brother. She attended the Antioch College laboratory school in Ohio, and later Oberlin College, where she earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. She taught for two years at Wilberforce College before moving to Washington, D.C. in 1887 to teach at the M Street Colored High School.
While teaching at M Street Colored High School, she met Heberton Terrell, also a teacher and they married and in 1891, they had one daughter and later adopted a second daughter.
In 1892, Terrell founded the Colored Women’s League of Washington. She was instrumental in the group’s merge with the National Federation of Afro-American Women to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. Terrell was elected as the first president of the organization. She was re-elected and given the title of honorary president for life after completion of her second term.
Terrell was also elected president of the prominent Washington, D.C. black debate organization “Bethel Literary and Historical Society,” the first woman to take the position.
Terrell served as a professor and principal at Wilberforce University and became the first black woman appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education in 1895.
She resigned from the board after six years, due to a conflict of interest involving a vote for her husband to become a school principal.
A founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she wrote for both black and foreign newspapers and sometimes the Washington Post even though the latter was less accepting of her race-related topics.
Terrell became an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority at Howard University in 1913 and she received an honorary degree in humane letters from Oberlin College in 1948, as well as honorary degrees from Howard and Wilberforce universities.
Terrell, who accurately described the difficulties which black women faced at that time, offered her linguistic services to the federal government during WWI despite discrimination. She managed to obtain a low-level clerk position but eventually resigned due to racial prejudice.
She reportedly experienced difficulties in buying a house, seeking other employment opportunities, and travelling in the south. Terrell continued speaking, writing, and teaching. She lost her husband in 1925, and she spent her time in Washington, D.C. for the rest of her life.
In 1940, she released her autobiography “Colored Woman in a White World”. By 1950, she and a number of colleagues had become one of the earliest activist groups in a new era of civil rights.
D.C. segregation was officially challenged and declared unconstitutional in 1953 following a lawsuit that was filed against Washington, D.C.’s Thompson Restaurant when the establishment refused to serve Terrell and her colleagues because of their race.
Terrell helped organize sit-ins, pickets, boycotts, and surveys around the city ahead of the ruling. While in her eighties, Terrell successfully lobbied the National Association of University Women to admit blacks.
Terrell spent her life fighting for the causes of universal suffrage, and the freedom and equality of men and women of all colors in the eyes of the law.
In 2018, the Oberlin College announced its main library in Mudd Center will be named in honor of Terrell.
Terrell died in 1954, two months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that schools had to be desegregated.