by Aaron D. Johnson
Mary Church Terrell was an extraordinary woman who dedicated a large part of her life to civil rights activism. Born in a time where African Americans were treated like they were less than second class citizens, Mary Church Terrell worked diligently and tirelessly on changing the sad reality of the 1800’s and 1900’s.
Mary Church was born in Civil War Memphis, Tennessee and was raised during Reconstruction. She was born to former enslaved mixed race African Americans named Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers. Her father became wealthy from investing real estate in Tennessee where they lived.
At just six years old Mary was sent away to complete primary and secondary schools. Her parents sent her to Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio. From there she went on to enroll in Oberlin College where she majored in the classics. Although, her classmates were mostly white men, Mary Church stood out academically and was noticed for it. She was elected to two of the college’s literary societies and served as an editor of The Oberlin Review. She went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin College.
Like many educated Black people of her time, Mary became a secondary school teacher, principal, and college professor. She worked out of Washington D.C. teaching at an all black secondary school and at Wilberforce College which is also historically black.
Her love for education led her to study abroad in Europe for two years. She became fluent in the romance languages of French, German, and Italian as a result.
Church married Robert Heberton Terrell, a lawyer who became the first black municipal court judge in Washington, DC. The Terrell’s had five children in total, three of which died in infancy. Their daughter Phyllis survived and they adopted another daughter Mary.
Mary Church Terrell was instrumental in the creation of the Colored Women’s League. She was a member and first president of the NACW (National Association of Colored Women). Terrell was also a devoted member of the NAACP and its programs.
As a tireless and truly dedicated soldier for civil rights, Mary Terrell wrote articles attacking chain gangs, peonage, disfranchisement, and lynching. She criticized both Theodore Roosevelt for his treatment of Black soldiers and Franklyn Roosevelt for his inaction on civil rights.
Mary Church Terrell summed up her legacy in her 1940 autobiography, A Colored Women in a White World.
This is a story of a colored woman living in a white world. It cannot possibly be like a story written by a white woman. A white woman only has one handicap to overcome – that of s*x. I have two – both s*x and race. I belong to the only group in this country which has two huge obstacles to surmount.