Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell, 90 yrs old, when she led a successful drive to end the segregation of public facilities in Washington, D.C


Mary Church Terrell (September 23, 1863 – July 24, 1954) was an activist, author, socialite, suffragist, and NCAAP co-founder.  The daughter of former slaves, she was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree.  She became an activist who led several important associations, including the National Associate of Colored Women, and worked for civil rights and suffrage.

Painting of Mary Church Terrell

Painting of Mary Church Terrell by Betsy Graves Reyneau, 1888-1964

Mary Church was born in Memphis, Tennessee, to Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers, both former slaves.  Robert Church was mixed-race and said to be the son of his white master, Charles Church.  He acquired considerable wealth investing in real estate in Memphis.  Multiple sources refer to Church as the first black millionaire, although it is now generally accepted that his wealth reached only about $700,000.  When Church was six years old, her parents sent her to the Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for her elementary and secondary education.  She majored in classics at Oberlin College, and was an African-American woman among mostly white male students.  The freshman class nominated her as class poet, and she was elected to two of the college's literary societies.  Church also served as an editor of The Oberlin Review.  When she earned her bachelor's degree in 1884, she was one of the first African-American women to do so.  She earned a master's degree from Oberlin in 1888.

Mary Church Terrell Civil Rights

Mary Church Terrell, Speaking Out for Civil Rights

Terrell taught at a black secondary school in Washington, DC, and at Wilberforce College, an historically black college founded collaboratively by the Methodist Church in Ohio and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which later owned and operated it.   Mary studied in Europe for two years, where she became fluent in French, German, and Italian.  On October 18, 1891, in Memphis, Church married Robert Heberton Terrell, a lawyer who became the first black municipal court judge in Washington, DC. The couple met through the M Street School, a top academic high school, where Terrell taught and became principal. 

The Terrells had three children who died in infancy.  Their daughter Phyllis survived.  They later adopted a second daughter, Mary.  Through her father, Terrell met Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington.  She was especially close to Douglass and worked with him on several civil rights campaigns.  Shortly after her marriage to Robert Terrell, she considered retiring from activism to settle down.  It was Douglass who persuaded her that her talents required her to do otherwise. 

As a high school teacher and principal, Mary Church Terrell was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education, 1895-1906. She was the first black woman in the United States to hold such a position.  Terrell was also an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.  She was particularly concerned that the organization should continue fighting for suffrage among black women.   With Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, she formed the Federation of Afro-American Women.

In 1896, Terrell became the first president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women's Clubs.  NACWC members established day nurseries and kindergartens, and helped orphans.  Also in 1896, Terrell founded the National Association of College Women, which later became the National Association of University Women (NAUW).  The League started a training program and kindergarten before these were included in the Washington public schools.  The success of the League's educational initiatives led to Terrell's appointment to the District of Columbia Board of Education.

Mary Church Terrell Civil Rights young

Mary Church Terrell

Historians have generally emphasized Terrell's role as an activist and community leader during the Progressive Era.  She also had a prosperous career as a journalist (she identified as a writer).  Using the pen name "Euphemia Kirk", Terrell published in both the black and white press to promote the African American Women's Club Movement (Terrell, 1940).  She wrote for a variety of newspapers "published either by or in the interest of colored people (Terrell, 1940, p. 222)," such as the A.M.E. Church Review of Philadelphia, PA; the Southern Workman of Hampton, VA; the Indianapolis Freeman; the Afro-American of Baltimore; the Washington Tribune; the Chicago Defender; the New York Age; the Voice of the Negro; the Women's World; and the Norfolk Journal and Guide (Terrell, 1940).  She also contributed to the Washington Evening Star and the Washington Post (Terrell, 1940).  She aligned the African-American Women's Club Movement and the overall struggle of black women and the black race for equality.

In 1892 she was elected as the first woman president of the prominent Washington DC black debate organization Bethel Literary and Historical Society.  In 1904 Terrell was invited to speak at the International Congress of Women, held in Berlin, Germany.  She was the only black woman at the conference.  Terrell received an enthusiastic ovation when she honored the host nation by delivering her address in German. She delivered the speech in French, and concluded with the English version.

 Mary Church Terrell 2

Mary Church Terrell

In 1909, Terrell was one of two black woman (Ida B. Wells-Barnett was the other) invited to sign the “Call” and to attend the first organizational meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where she became a founding member.  In 1913-1914, she helped organize the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.  More than a quarter century later, she helped write its creed that set up a code of conduct for black women.

In World War I, she was involved with the War Camp Community Service, which aided in recreation for and, later, the demobilization of Negro servicemen.  As WWI was winding down, Terrell and her daughter Phyllis joined Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, of the Congressional Union of Woman Suffrage (CUWS), to picket the White House on issues related to the demobilization of Negro servicemen and need for jobs.  Terrell was a delegate to the International Peace Conference after the end of the war.  While in England, Terrell stayed with Mr. and Mrs. H.G. Wells.  Terrell worked actively in the women's suffrage movement, which pushed for enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution.

A young Mary Church Terrell

A young Mary Church Terrell

Active in the Republican Party, she was president of the Women's Republican League during Warren G. Harding's 1920 presidential campaign and the first election in which all American women were given the right to vote.   In the former Confederacy, Southern states had earlier passed voter registration and election rules that still effectively disenfranchised most blacks.  Those restrictions were not fully overturned until the civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

Terrell wrote an autobiography, “A Colored Woman in a White World” (1940).  In 1950 she started what would be a successful fight to integrate eating-places in the District of Columbia.  In the 1890s the District of Columbia had formalized segregation, as did states in the South.  Before then, local integration laws dating to the 1870s had required all eating-place proprietors "to serve any respectable, well-behaved person regardless of color, or face a $1,000 fine and forfeiture of their license."  

In 1949, Dr. Terrell and colleagues Clark F. King, Essie Thompson, and Arthur F. Elmer entered the segregated Thompson Restaurant. When refused service, they promptly filed a lawsuit.  Attorney Ringgold Hart, representing Thompson, argued on April 1, 1950, that the District laws were unconstitutional and later won the case against restaurant segregation.  In the three years pending a decision in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Terrell targeted other restaurants.  Her tactics included boycotts, picketing, and sit-ins.  Finally, on June 8, 1953, the court ruled that segregated eating-places in Washington, DC, were unconstitutional.

 Mary Church Terrell The Progress of Colored Women

Mary Church Terrell, The Progress of Colored Women 

After the age of 80, Terrell continued to participate in picket lines, protesting the segregation of restaurants and theaters.  During her senior years, she also succeeded in persuading the local chapter of the American Association of University Women to admit black members.  Terrell lived to see the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, holding unconstitutional the segregation of schools by race.  She died two months later at the age of 90, on July 24, 1954 in Anne Arundel General Hospital.  It was the week before the NACW was to hold its annual meeting, that year in her town of Annapolis, Maryland.


  • First Lady Mamie Eisenhower paid tribute to Terrell's memory in a letter read to the NACW convention on August 1, writing, "For more than 60 years, her great gifts were dedicated to the betterment of humanity, and she left a truly inspiring record."
  • 1933 - At Oberlin College's centennial celebration, Terrell was recognized among the college's "Top 100 Outstanding Alumni".
  • 1948 - Oberlin awarded Terrell the honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.
  • 1975 - The Mary Church Terrell houseLeDroit ParkNational Historic Landmark.
  • In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante100 Greatest African Americans.
  • 2009- Terrell was among 12 pioneers of civil rights commemorated in a United States Postal Service postage stamp series.



Long tradition of female intellectuals brought to you by Paris-based African American painter Ealy Mays



  • Mary Church Terrell: Online Resources, from the Library of Congress
  • Jessie Carney Smith, ed., “Robert Reed Church Sr.,” in Notable Black American Men, 1 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1999), 202.
  • Current Biography 1942, pp.829
  • Roberts, Kim (Spring 2010). "The Bethel Literary and Historical Society"Beltway Poetry Quarterly
  • Current Biography 1942, p.829
  • "Mrs. Eisenhower Lauds Work of Mrs. Terrell," The Charleston Gazette, August 2, 1954, p. 6
  • Current Biography 1942, pp.827-30
  • Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
  • Church, M.T.(1940). A Colored Woman in a White World. Washington, DC: Ransdell, Inc. Publishers.
  • Davis, E.L. (1996). Lifting as They Climb. New York: G.K. Hall & Co.
  • Johnson, K.A. (2000). Uplifting the Women and the Race: The Educational Philosophies and Social Activism of Anna Julia Cooper and Nannie Helen Burroughs, New York: Garland Publishing.
  • Jones, B.W. (1982). Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women: 1986-1901. The Journal of Negro History, 67,20-33.
  • Jones, B.W. (1990). Quest for Equality: The Life and Writings of Mary Eliza Church Terrell. Brooklyn, New York: Carlson Publishing, Inc.
  • Margaret Nash, Patient Persistence: The Political and Educational Values of Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell. University of California at Riverside
  • Wade-Gayles, G. Black Women Journalists in the South: 1880-1905: An Approach to the Study of Black Women's History. Callaloo, 11, 138-152.
  • Washington Post. Restaurant's Right to Bar Negroes Upheld.
  • Washington Post. Assails Mrs. Terrell. June 19, 1904
  • Mary Church Terrell
  • Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)
  • Mary Eliza Church Terrell

This article is based in part on a document created by the National Park Service

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