Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell (September 23, 1863 – July 24, 1954), daughter of former slaves, was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree. She became an activist who led several important associations and worked for civil rights and suffrage.

When Terrell majored in classics at Oberlin College, she was an African-American woman among mostly white male students. The freshman class nominated her as class poet, and she was elected to two of the college’s literary societies. Terrell 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 to have earned a college degree. Church earned a master’s degree from Oberlin in 1888.

Through her father, Terrell 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, she considered retiring from activism to settle down. It was Douglass who persuaded her that her talents required her to do otherwise.[1]

In 1896, Terrell became the first president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. NACWC members established day nurseries and kindergartens, and helped orphans. Also in 1896, Terrell 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 became included in the Washington public schools. The success of the League’s educational initiatives led to her appointment to the District of Columbia Board of Education.

Historians have generally emphasized Terrell’s role as an activist and community leader during the Progressive Era. She also had a prosperous career as a journalist (she simply called herself a writer). Using the pen name “Euphemia Kirk,” Terrell published in both the black and white press to promote the African American Women’s Club Movement (Terrell, 1940). She wrote for a variety of newspapers “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). She also contributed to the Washington Evening Star and the Washington Post (Terrell, 1940). She aligned the African-American Women’s Club Movement and the overall struggle of black women and the black race for equality. In 1892 she was elected as the first woman president of the prominent Washington DC black debate organization Bethel Literary and Historical Society[2]

Terrell lived to see the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, holding unconstitutional the segregation of schools by race. She died two months later at the age of 90, on July 24, 1954 in Anne Arundel General Hospital. It was the week before the NACW was to hold its annual meeting, that year at her town of Annapolis, Maryland.

Mary Church Terrell