On This Day: Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell-educator, political activist, author of  A Colored Woman in a White Worldand first president of the National Association of Colored Women—was born on this day, September 23, in 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee.

An 1884 graduate of Oberlin College, America’s first college to admit women and amongst the first to admit students of all races.  Terrell was an African-American woman among mostly white male students. Still, the freshman class elected her as class poet, and she was elected to two of the college’s literary societies. Mary 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 known to have earned a college degree. Mary continued on to earn a master’s degree from Oberlin in 1888.

Mary Church taught at a black secondary school in Washington, DC and at Wilberforce College, a historically black college founded by the Methodist Church in Ohio. She studied in Europe for two years, where she became fluent in French, German, and Italian.

Mary Church Terrell with a kindergarten class established by the Colored Woman's League of Washington, D.C. The league focused on the educational development of disadvantaged African-American women and children.

Terrell began her career as a teacher. After her marriage to Washington lawyer Robert Terrell, she became active in the National American Woman Suffrage Association where she became a spokesperson for the particular concerns of African-American women. A passionate advocate of education, Terrell sold her speeches during this period in order to raise money for a kindergarten. In 1895, she was the first African-American woman to serve on the Washington, D.C., school board in which she served until 1905 and again from 1906 to 1911.

During the late 19th century, numerous local Black women’s service clubs were formed. The Black club members found that they could not affiliate themselves with the National Council of Women, the General Federation of Women’s clubs, nor could they be represented at the 1893 World’s Fair.    

Inspired by the ability of national clubs to tackle national issues their exclusion from participation in the planning of the 1893 World’s Fair, Terrell and other black women leaders to formed the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896.  Also known as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, it was created to serve as an umbrella organization for black women’s groups throughout the country.

Mary Church Terrell was the first President of the NACW and under her leadership, the NACW worked to achieve social and educational reform and to end discrimination based on gender and race.  The NACW addressed issues ranging from lynching, Jim Crow, suffrage and the plight rural women. Under her leadership the NACW established training programs for and parents programs.

By the turn of the century, Mary Church Terrell had firmly established herself as a lecturer on women’s issues.

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