MARY CHURCH TERRELL
The final African American Suffragist highlighted this month will be Mary Church Terrell, known to be the first to earn a college degree. According to Black Women’s Suffragists(1) racial justice and women’s suffrage activist Mary Church Terrell was born in 1863 in Memphis, TN, to formerly enslaved parents. Her family was affluent: Her mother, Louisa Ayres Church, owned a hair salon, and her father, Robert Reed Church, was an entrepreneur who owned several businesses and became one of the first African American millionaires in the American South.
Church’s parents valued education, and, though her parents divorced, she studied at Antioch College and earned a degree from Oberlin College in Ohio in 1884. Church, who was fluent in three languages, then worked as a teacher at Ohio’s Wilberforce College. In 1887, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she was a teacher at M Street Colored High School and met her husband, fellow teacher Robert Heberton Terrell.
In 1909, Terrell helped to found the National Association for the Advancement for the of Colored People. (NAACP) and the next year, co-founded the College Alumnae Club which later became the National Association of University Women.
Terrell believed that women’s suffrage was essential to progress for Black women, and worked extensively with both Black and white women’s suffrage groups, even picketing the White House with the National Woman’s Party.
After the passage of the 19th Amendment, Terrell continued to advocate for civil rights and end to racial discrimination, and her activism continued unabated in her later years. In 1940, she published an autobiography detailing her experience with discrimination, A Colored Woman in a White World. During World War II, she spoke out about the injustice of Black soldiers fighting for freedom abroad while being discriminated against at home. She filed a successful discrimination lawsuit against the American Association of University Women after they denied her entry, and became its first Black member in 1948. She challenged segregation in Washington, D.C., using techniques like boycotts, pickets and sit-ins that would become more popular as the civil rights movement wore on. Perhaps most famously, she and other activists filed a lawsuit—when she was in her 80s—challenging segregation in a Washington, D.C. restaurant. This led to a landmark 1953 Supreme Court ruling that outlawed segregation in dining facilities. Terrell died in Maryland in 1954, ending her more than 65-year-long career of activism.
Beloved, these women suffrage pioneers, marginalized, humiliated and fighting a dual oppression, were often dismissed for being black and female; yet they sacrificially gave their all to the women’s suffrage movement. Women have come a long way. Today women are owners of their own companies, CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, doctors, scientists, astronauts, lawyers, professors, journalists, teachers, pastors, etc., and hold in their hands influence, power and opportunity which they are using to open doors formerly closed by others. We owe it to the legacy of women suffragists to continue to educate ourselves, our children and grandchildren of the contributions made by men and women to African American history and its importance in the American story, not just during the month of February, but all during the year.
1 Black Women’s Suffrage at: https://blackwomenssuffrage.dp.la/key-figures/maryChurchTerrell.
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