Mary Church Terrell: Early Civil Rights Pioneer

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Mary Church Terrell: Early Civil Rights Pioneer

As a professional lecturer, Mary Church Terrell's ideals for racial equity and support for people of color including Black women would be heard by many as she spoke of Black history and culture focusing on such topics as crime, economics, lynching, racial injustice, and female suffrage. (Smith, J. C. & Giovanni, N., 2001) In the late 1890's and early 1900's, Mary would speak on the progress of Black women and the justice of women suffrage to the American Woman Suffrage Association. She would also go on to speak to culturally and ethnically diverse groups at the Berlin International Women's Congress in Germany, the International League for Peace and Freedom in Zurich, and World Fellowships of Faith in London.

Mary Church TerrellSeptember 23, 1863 - June 24, 1954

In Memphis, Tennessee, during the Fall of 1863, Mary Eliza Church was born to Robert Reed Church, Sr. and Louisa Ayers Church. Both, Church and his wife were former slaves but despite this fact, the Churches became prominent and wealthy members of their community with Robert, Sr. becoming the South's first black millionaire. Soon after Terrell's birth, the Churches welcomed a second child, Terrell’s brother, Thomas Ayers Church. The marriage between Terrell’s parents, Robert, Sr. and Louisa, did not last long and ended in divorce with Louisa moving to New York. Robert, Sr. went on to marry again; a woman named Anna Wright. To this union, Robert, Sr. and Anna, welcomed a son, Robert, Jr. and a daughter, Annette Elaine providing Terrell with two brothers and a sister. After attaining a solid education (including an advanced degree and study abroad) and beginning a career in teaching, Terrell married Robert Herberton Church in 1891. Residing in the District of Columbia, the Terrells experienced great difficulty starting a family as Terrell endured three miscarriages (something she attributed to poor healthcare in Black communities). After a brief stay in New York with her mother, Terrell gave birth to a daughter in 1898, Phyllis (named after the African-American poet, Phillis Wheatley). In 1905, the Terrells added to their family with the adoption of Terrell’s niece (her brother, Thomas' daughter), Mary Louisa. Terrell maintained a strong family structure with her husband, daughters, and extended family. Having spent 34 years together, in December of 1925, Terrell’s husband, Robert passed away after several years of deteriorating health and paralysis. Much later in her life, Terrell found herself in the role of adoptive parent again as she successfully sued her brother, Robert, Jr. for custody of their ten year old nephew (Thomas' son) following his father's death. The young boy, named Thomas, was primarily cared for by Mary Louisa (his adult sister and Terrell’s daughter) with Terrell financially and lovingly supporting his care. After a full life adorned with an prolific career and loving family, Mary Eliza Church Terrell passed away on June 24, 1954 at age 91 (just two months after the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education which declared separate but equal schools to be unconstitutional).

Family History

Mary Church Terrell began her career as an educator teaching languages at Wilberforce University (in Wilberforce, Ohio) and later joined the Latin department at a Washington, D.C. secondary school. Terrell also took time to study abroad and spent two years traveling to many European countries including Italy, France, and Germany. Her career as an educator was short lived as she married the first Black municipal judge in Washington, D. C., Robert Herberton Church in 1891. At this time in history, women were not allowed to continue teaching while married. However, as the first Black woman appointed to a school board, Terrell would remain prevalent in the field of education as she served on the Washington, D. C. school board for 11 years (1895-1901, 1906-1911).

Feminist and Suffragist. In 1896, Mary Church Terrell co founded the National Association for Colored Women (NACW) and became its first president, subsequently serving two additional terms before being declared honorary president for life. This organization was an amalgamation of several organizations promoting Black women's rights through social and educational reform. Their motto: “Lifting as We Climb.” Terrell was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP): an organization which to the present day champions civil rights for people of color. In 1949, Terrell became the first Black woman admitted to the Washington chapter of the American Association of University Women (AAUW): an organization that advances women through various avenues including education, research and philanthropy. (“Membership”)Anti-Lynching. In 1892, after a hometown friend, Tom Moss, was lynched, Terrell along with fellow activist, Frederick Douglass visited President Benjamin Harrison to speak on the injustices of lynching. Although President Harrison chose not to publicly address the issue of lynching, he did listen to the pair. Terrell would also use her writing skills to publish nonfiction works on this topic which may be found in many early twentieth century African-American journals. Politics. Serving in many capacities within the political arena, Terrell worked with the Republican Party as (1) a RNC supervisor among black women in the East, (2) a supporter of Ruth Hannah McCormick's unsuccessful run for U.S. Senator of Illinois, and (3) an advisor to the RNC during President Herbert Hoover's campaign. Racial Injustice. Mary Church Terrell's tireless work against racial injustices would include leadership roles in the National Committee to Free the Ingram Family and the Coordination Committee for the Enforcement of D. C. Anti-Discrimination Laws. In the early 1950's, through demonstration and litigation, Terrell assisted in ending the refusal of service based on color in Washington, D. C. restaurants and businesses. Also an advocate for those adversely affected by a racially bias criminal justice system, Terrell assisted in the release of a (Black) Georgia family (a mother and her two sons) after 10 years of incarceration for killing a white man in self defense.

As an activist...

As an Educator...

Terrell’s mother, Louisa, understood the importance of a ‘good education’ and sent Terrell (at the age of six) to the Antioch College Model School in Ohio where she lived with a black couple during her two year enrollment. After Terrell's matriculation at the Antioch School, she entered the Yellow Springs Public School System, also in Ohio. Terrell was educated alongside White children within a community of transplanted New England abolitionist and graduated high school at age 16. (Smith, J. C. & Giovanni, N., 2001) Graduating from Oberlin College in 1884 with a degree in languages, Terrell was one of the first Black women to do so. Continuing her education, Terrell attained a master's degree in education (also from Oberlin College) in 1888.


As an author, Mary Church Terrell provided readers with a 'multicultural' perspective on life through the lenses of black people in America. Although much of her writing went unpublished, Terrell was known to her friends, publishers, editors, and other authors, as an accomplished writer. Being an educator at heart, Terrell found narrative fiction from a pedagogical perspective to be the most effective method of promoting interracial understanding as illustrated in such works as "Betsey's Borrowed Baby" and "Did Jeff Jackson Hear Caruso?" These short stories/essays painted a picture of America's race problem through story lessons and relatable scenarios. Terrell's published writing can be found in popular early twentieth century African-American journals like AME Church Review and Southern Workman. (McHenry, 2007) One of Terrell's most significant published, nonfiction works, "Lynching from a Negro's Point of View" was printed in the June, 1904 issue of the North American Review. After years if working, revising, and seeking guidance for her writing, Terrell (at age 77), published A Colored Woman in a White World, her autobiography that narrated her pilgrimage in a racially divided America.

As a lecturer...

As an author...


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