September 23, 1863 – Birth of Mary Church Terrell, 1st President of the National Association for Colored Women & Founding Member of the NAACP

Mary Church was born on this day to former slaves in Memphis, Tennessee. The Women’s History site relates:

Her father, Robert Reed Church, was a successful businessman who became one of the South’s first African American millionaires. Her mother, Louisa Ayres Church, owned a hair salon. . . . .Their affluence and belief in the importance of education enabled Terrell to attend the Antioch College laboratory school in Ohio, and later Oberlin College, where she earned both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.”

Mary spent two years teaching at Wilburforce College and then in 1887 moved to Washington, D.C. to teach at the M Street Colored High School. There she met and married a fellow teacher, Robert Heberton Terrell.

Mary Church Terrell

In 1892, an old friend of hers, Tommie Moss, was lynched in Memphis. According to the reporting of Ida B. Wells, a white grocer was losing business to a nearby grocery run by three black men: Tommie Moss, Will Stewart, and Calvin McDowell. The white grocer apparently convinced a large group of armed white men to go into the store, and after an altercation, the black grocers were arrested and jailed. Three days later the jail was stormed and the three were taken to be killed. Tommie Moss was asked if he had any final words. He said “Tell my people to go west. There is no justice for them here.” The three were shot point blank and left under a pile of brush.

Ida B. Wells, who also regarded Tommie Moss as a good friend, wrote:


A finer, cleaner man than he never walked the streets of Memphis.  He was well liked, a favorite with everybody; yet he was murdered with no more consideration that if he had been a dog…The colored people feel that every white man in Memphis who consented in his death is as guilty as those who fired the guns which took his life. . . . . with the aid of the city and county authorities and the daily papers, that white grocer had indeed put an end to his rival Negro grocer as well as to his business.” Ida B. Wells, in Crusade for Justice, 1892

Thereafter, Mary Church Terrell joined Ida B. Wells in anti-lynching campaigns, but Terrell took an approach similar to that of Booker T. Washington. That is, she believed that blacks would help end racial discrimination most effectively by advancing themselves and other members of the race through education, work, and community activism. Her words — “Lifting as we climb” — became the motto of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the group she helped found in 1896. She was NACW president from 1896 to 1901.

Ida B. Wells, Anti-Lynching Activist

But her strategy didn’t help the lynched grocers much. Nor did it help her and her husband, a Harvard graduate who became the first African-American to hold the position of justice of the peace in the District and a longtime municipal judge. As the WETA history blog notes:

Despite their education and wealth, the Terrells experienced Washington D.C. as second-class citizens. Judge Terrell faced a daily dilemma of maintaining law and order when the law denied African-Americans basic civil rights. The couple was denied housing when they attempted to move into the whites-only LeDroit Park. When Mary Church Terrell became the first African-American woman to sit on the D.C. school board in 1896, she was patronized or expected to represent all African-Americans.”

In 1906, Terrell gave a speech entitled “What it Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States” at the United Women’s Club in Washington, D.C. She observed:

For fifteen years I have resided in Washington. . . . . As a colored woman I might enter Washington any night, a stranger in a strange land, and walk miles without finding a place to lay my head. Unless I happened to know colored people who live here or ran across a chance acquaintance who could recommend a colored boarding-house to me, I should be obliged to spend the entire night wandering about. Indians, Chinamen, Filipinos, Japanese and representatives of any other dark race can find hotel accommodations, if they can pay for them. The colored man alone is thrust out of the hotels of the national capital like a leper.”

In addition, she was denied service at restaurants, and had been ejected from both theaters and churches. Jobs for blacks consisted mainly of low-paying, menial positions and housing was restricted. Anticipating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, she said:

Early in life many a colored youth is so appalled by the helplessness and the hopelessness of the situation in this country that in a sort of stoical despair he resigns himself to his fate. When I taught in the high school of Washington the thoughtful boys would sometimes come to me and say: ‘What is the good of our trying to get an education? We can’t all be preachers, teachers, doctors and lawyers. Besides those professions, there is almost nothing to do but engage in menial occupations, and we do not need an education for that.’ Such remarks uttered by young men and women in our public schools who possess brilliant intellects have often wrung my heart.”

Terrell also actively worked for women’s suffrage, which she saw as essential to elevating the status of black women, and consequently, the entire race. Terrell fought for women’s suffrage and civil rights because she realized that she belonged “to the only group in this country that has two such huge obstacles to surmount . . . both sex and race.”

In 1909, Terrell was among the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1910, she co-founded the College Alumnae Club, later renamed the National Association of University Women. She had to sue, though, to become a member.

In 1940, Terrell published her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World.

In 1950, she started what would be a successful fight to integrate eating places in the District of Columbia, filing a lawsuit along with some of her colleagues against the segregated Thompson Restaurant. In the three years following in which the case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court with District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co. (346 U.S. 100, 1953), Terrell targeted other restaurants. Her tactics included boycotts, picketing, and sit-ins. Finally, on June 8, 1953, the Court, in an opinion by Justice William O. Douglas, ruled that segregated eating places in Washington, DC, were unconstitutional.

Mary Church Terrell celebrating her 90th birthday party on September 23 1953. Just three months earlier she achieved her goal of desegregating Washington, D.C. restaurants. From left to right: Federal Judge William Hastie, Ms. Terrell, NAACP President Walter White and Eugene Davidson, another NAACP official. (Source: Washington Area Spark on Flickr)

She died in 1954 at the age of 90.

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