Happy Birthday Mary Church Terrell!

The telling 1940 autobiography A Colored Woman in a White World recounts the remarkable life of Mary Church Terrell, one of the first Black American women to earn a college degree, a suffragist and civil rights advocate, and a woman who met and worked beside the titans of Black American history, from Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, to her contemporaries Ida B. Wells and white suffragist leader Susan B. Anthony.

Terrell was born into the Reconstruction Era Black elite of Memphis, Tennessee on September 23, 1863—her father was the South’s first African American millionaire, and her mother was a successful hair salon entrepreneur. Terrell studied Classics at Oberlin College; she and her classmates Anna Julia Cooper and Ida Gibbs Hunt would remain friends and advocates for racial and gender justice for life. And that lifetime of justice advocacy is remarkable: starting out as a Latin teacher at Washington D.C.’s M Street School (one of the nation’s first high schools for Black Americans), she would go on to become a charter member of the NAACP in 1909, the first Black woman to be appointed to the school board of a major city (Washington, D.C.), and helped found both the National Association of Colored Women and the National Association of College Women.

She fought hard for women’s right to vote, even though Southern disenfranchisement made it impossible for Black women to exercise that right until 1965’s Voting Rights Act. She was also a prolific journalist, publishing under the pen name Euphemia Kirk in both the Black and white press. A courageous 1904 article published under her own name was “Lynching from a Negro’s Point of View,” wherein Terrell strove to disabuse prevailing narratives justifying the systemized murder of Black men in post-Civil Rights America. It is widely available online.

Given that Terrell marched in picket lines up into her eighties, what do you think she would make of how our society is shifting today to embrace the Movement for Black Lives and other liberation causes?

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published