Mary Church Terrell


Mary Church Terrell (born September 23, 1863 – July 24, 1954)was an activist. She led important associations that worked for civil rights and suffrage. In 1884 she was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, and she continued with “firsts” throughout her career, becoming the first black woman to serve on the District of Columbia Board of Education and the first to hold such a position in the nation.

Mary was born in Memphis, Tennessee to Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers, both former slaves. Robert Church reputedly became a self-made millionaire from real-estate investments in Memphis. He was said to be the son of his white master, Charles Church. Robert R. Church, Sr. a pioneer Memphis businessman was married twice. Her Mother, Louisa Ayers, was also a former slave. When she was six years old, her parents sent her to the Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio for her elementary and secondary education. Mary, known to members of her family as “Mollie,” and her brother were born during the first marriage to her mother, which terminated in divorce. Robert, Jr., and sister, Annette, were born during the second marriage to Anna (Wright) Church.

When Mary Church majored in classes at Oberlin College, she was an African-American woman among mostly white male students. She was not intimidated by that. Instead the freshman class elected her as class poet, and she was elected to two of the college’s literary societies. Church also served as an editor of the Oberlin Review. When she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1884, she was one of the first African-American women known to have earned a college degree. Next Church earned a master’s degree from Oberlin in 1888.

Church taught at a black secondary school in Washington, DC and at Wilberforce College, an historically black college (HBCU) founded by the Methodist Church in Ohio. She studied in Europe for two years, where she became fluent in French, German, and Italian.

On October 18, 1891 in Memphis, Church married Robert Heberton Terrell. Robert Terrell was a lawyer who became the first black municipal court judge in Washington, DC. He also taught at M Street school and became a principal, where he met Church. Robert Terrell was a graduate of Groton Academy, Groton, Massachusetts, and a magna cum laude graduate in the class of 1884 of Harvard University. He was valedictorian in 1889 at Howard University Law School. After her first three children died in infancy, Mary Terrell gave birth to a daughter Phyllis.[1]. The Terrells later adopted a second daughter, Mary.

As a high school teacher and principal, Mary Church Terrell was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education, 1895-1906. She was the first black woman in the United States to hold such a position.

Through her father, Mary met Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. She was especially close to Douglass and worked with him on several civil rights campaigns. Shortly after her marriage to Robert Terrell (as she described in her autobiography), she considered retiring from activism to settle down. It was Douglass who persuaded her that her talents required her to do otherwise [1].

Terrell was an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. She was particularly concerned about ensuring the organization continued to fight for black woman getting to vote. With Josephine St.Pierre Ruffin, she formed the Federation of Afro-American Women. In 1896, Terrell became the first president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. The NACWC members established day nurseries, kindergartens and helped orphans. In 1896, Terrell also founded the National Association of College Women, which later became the National Association of University Women (NAUW). The League started a training program and kindergarten before these were incorporated in the Washington Public School System. The Success of the League’s educational initiatives led to her appointment to the District of Columbia Board of Education. Mrs. Terrell was the first Black woman in the United States to serve in this position. In 1896, Mary Church Terrell became the founder and first president of the National Association of Colored Women, a national organization of Black women’s club.

Although much of what is written about Terrell primarily highlights her role as an activist and clubwoman during the progressive era, it is also important to note that she enjoyed a very active and prosperous career as a journalist (although she more often referrd to herself as a “writer”). Often writing under the pen name of “Euphemia Kirk,” Terrell utilized both black and white press outlets to communicate the message of the African American Women’s Club Movement (Terrell,1940). She wrote for a variety of newspapers that were “published either by or in the interest of colored people (Terrell, 1940, p. 222),” such as the A.M.E. Church Review of Philadelphia, PA; the Southern Workman of Hampton, VA; the Indianapolis Freeman;the Afro-American of Baltimore; the Washington Tribune; the Chicago Defender; the New York Age; the Voice of the Negro; the Women’s World; and the Norfolk Journal and Guide(Terrell, 1940). Among the white publications that she contributed to include the Washington Evening Star and the Washington Post (Terrell,1940). No matter what the medium, Terrell communicated a consistent message, through the vehicle of printed texts, that effectively and decisively aligned with that of the African American Women’s Club Movement and the overall struggle of black women and the black race for equality.


A Colored Woman In A White World by Mary Church Terrell (Author), Debra Newman Ham (Foreword)

Fight On!: Mary Church Terrell’s Battle for Integration by Judith Bloom Fradin (Author), Dennis Brindell Fradin (Author)

Mary Church Terrell: Leader for Equality by Pat McKissack (Author), Fredrick McKissack (Author)

Mary Church Terrell: Speaking Out for Civil Rights by Cookie Lommel

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