Self Awareness Vehicle Who Are You

Dr. Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell   1863 - 1954

Mary Church Terrell was noted as a champion of women's rights long before feminism was popular.  She was a write, organizer, lecturer and an active demonstrator for equality, to which she devoted her entire life.  Born of well-to-do parents in Memphis, Tennessee in 1863, Mary was sent to a private school in Ohio and later to Oberlin College where she graduated with a major in classical languages in 1884.  The only woman in a class of forty men, she won recognition as a class poet, member of the honorary literary society, and editor of the Oberlin Review.  After graduation, she took a teaching position at Wilber-force University, then sailed to Europe to perfect her language skills.  After returning to the United States, she pursed a master's degree at Oberlin.  The college offered her the position of Registrar--the highest position ever accorded a black woman at a leading college.  However, Miss Church declined the position to wed Robert Terrell (who became the first black municipal judge of Washington, D.C.) in 1891.  The couple had two daughters.  The eldest was named in honor of the black poetess, Phillis Wheatley.

Mary Church Terrell is credited with numerous achievements.  In 1892, she helped organized the Colored Women's League of Washington D.C.  A few years later, she instrumental in strengthening the League's force to form the National Association of Colored Women.  The organization elected her president for two terms and later named her honorary president.  The association's motto was "Lifting As They Climb," and its aim was to assist the poor and illiterate blacks.  In 1895, Washington, D.C. officials appointed her for the first of two terms on its Board of Education.  She served on the board until 1911 as the first black woman to hold that position.  She helped establish the Delta Sigma Theta sorority in 1913 and later wrote its famous creed.

Mary Terrell was active in the political arena as well, campaigning and speaking out against discrimination and segregation.  In 1904, she acquired an international reputation in Berlin, Germany when she addressed the International Council of Women.  As the only American delegate not restricted to her native tongue, she addressed the Conference, to the amazement of the delegates, fluently in three languages: English, French and German.  Although Mary Terrell interchanged her languages, her theme remained the same--equal rights for women and the black race.

Not only was Mrs. Terrell highly educated and intellectual, she was extremely attractive.  She used her inherited fair complexion to great advantage in her fight against racial injustice.  Frequently, she would enter a segregated restaurant and, after having been served as a white women, would demand to know why others of her race were not allowed to eat there.  She had found a copy of a law established during the Reconstruction days which ordered restaurants to serve "any respectable, well-behaved person."  Failure to do so meant forfeiture of license.  She headed a committee of distinguished black citizens to demand enforcement of this 80-year-old law.  She and several other blacks went to a number of restaurants and, after being refused service, filed a law suit which went before the Supreme Court.  In 1953, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in her favor.

Mary Church Terrell fought what she considered a "righteous war" until her death at age 91.  She died in 1954, just a few months after hearing the United States Supreme Court declare that segregation itself was unconstitutional.