The life’s work Mary Church Terrell has benefited millions


It is impossible for any white person in the United States, no matter how sympathetic and broad, to realize what life would mean to him if his incentive to effort were suddenly snatched away. To the lack of incentive to effort, which is the awful shadow under which we live, may be traced the wreck and ruin of scores of colored youth. And surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawn so wide and deep.

Excerpt from Mary Church Terrell’s speech What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the U.S. delivered on October 10, 1906, at the United Women’s Club, in Washington, D.C.

On July 21, 1896, Mary Church Terrell became the first President of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Inc. (NACWC) which was organized in Washington D.C. at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church.

On Sunday, January 18, 2009, two days before his historic Tuesday, January 20, 2009 inauguration, then President-elect Barack Obama and his family attended services at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, one of the oldest historically Black churches in Washington D.C.

The founding of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Inc. (NACWC) was the result of a merger of two national organizations, The Colored Women’s League and the National Federation of Afro-American Women. The launch of NACWC in 1896 just 31 years after slavery was abolished in the U.S. marked the beginning of a new era of activism for African American women.

Mary Church Terrell (September 23, 1863 – July 24, 1954), the child of formerly enslaved Africans, was born just two years before slavery ended in the U.S. (January 31, 1865.) As the oldest child of Robert Reed Church who has been frequently described as the first African American millionaire, Church Terrell was fortunate to have access to education, even to post secondary level. She received a Bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College in 1884 and after a two-year tour (she was a product of the education system of the 1800s) traveling throughout Europe she returned to Oberlin College where she received her Master’s degree in 1888.

Church Terrell was an activist and educator who taught at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio and at the M Street High School, a secondary school for African Americans in Washington, D. C. As an activist she advocated for an end to the Jim Crow Law, lynchings and the convict lease system. In the June 1904 issue of the North American Review in an article entitled Lynching from a Negro’s Point of View” she wrote: Before 1904 was three months old, thirty-one negroes had been lynched. Of this number, fifteen were murdered within one week in Arkansas, and one was shot to death in Springfield, Ohio, by a mob composed of men who did not take the trouble to wear masks. Hanging, shooting, and burning black men, women and children in the United States have become so common that such occurrences create but little sensation and evoke but slight comment now.

This dreadful American plague had touched Church Terrell’s family when in 1866 her father was attacked by a mob of White people jealous of his success as the wealthy owner of a hotel, restaurant and saloon. He was shot and left for dead but recovered and, remaining in Memphis, Tennessee despite continued rabid anti-African racism and violence, eventually built Church’s Park and Auditorium which seated 2,000 people and was a cultural, recreational and civic center for African Americans.

Although today the name Mary Church Terrell is not well known, she is one of my sheroes as an activist in the civil rights movement (during the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and the campaign for women’s right to vote. In 1895 Church Terrell was the first African American woman appointed to the District of Columbia’s Board of Education and in 1949 (at age 86) she became the first African American woman admitted to the Washington chapter of the American Association of University Women.

In her address Before The National American Women’s Suffrage Association on February 18, 1898 entitled The Progress Of Colored Women, Ms. Church Terrell is quoted: And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long. With courage, born of success achieved in the past, with a keen sense of the responsibility which we shall continue to assume, we look forward to a future large with promise and hope. Seeking no favors because of our color, nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice, asking an equal chance.

Her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, was published in 1940 when she was 77 years old. The only copy of this book (which was reprinted in 1996) available at the Toronto Public Library (TPL) is a reference only copy at the Toronto Reference Library.

In 1950, Church Terrell launched a campaign to integrate restaurants in Washington D.C., after she and other African American colleagues were refused service at one of the restaurants of the John R. Thompson Restaurant chain. They filed a lawsuit against the segregated restaurant chain and during the three years pending a decision in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Church Terrell targeted other segregated restaurants with boycotts, picketing and sit-ins. The campaign was eventually successful after a setback in early 1953. The February 5, 1953 edition of Jet Magazine reported under the headline U.S. Court Upholds D.C. Cafe Jim Crow: “Barring of Negroes in Washington D.C., restaurants was ruled legal by the U.S Court of Appeals. By a 5-4 decision in a case involving a Thompson’s Restaurant, the court upheld segregation and said that laws of 1873 which bar Jim Crow are now invalid.”

It was not until June 8, 1953, that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregated eating establishments in Washington, D.C. were unconstitutional.

The following year, on July 24, 1954, (17 months before Rosa Parks began her journey into Civil Rights history on December 1, 1955) Mary Church Terrell transitioned to be with the ancestors after a life of almost 91 years many of which were spent as an activist and advocate for the civil rights of African Americans. Her life’s work has benefited millions who are unaware that she even existed.

It is important that we recognize and remember our heroes and sheroes, especially during this International Year for People of African Descent.

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