On September 23, 1863, renowned civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee. A tireless champion of women’s rights and racial justice, Terrell was especially active in the Washington, D.C. area, where she lived for much of her life.
Mary Church Terrell was born to two former slaves turned successful entrepreneurs. Her father, Robert Church, was known as the South’s first black millionaire.
Her privileged upbringing placed Terrell among the rising black middle and upper classes who used their position to fight racial discrimination. She was one of the first black women to earn a college degree, and her studies at Oberlin College exposed her to the growing suffrage movement in the United States.
In the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine, black women from across the country gathered at a three-day convention in Washington, D.C. This convention resulted in the birth of the National Association of Colored Women, which consolidated several advocacy groups into one. Terrell was elected the first president of the group at the end of the convention, serving until 1901 and coining the group’s motto, “Lifting as we climb.” As president, she toured the country giving lectures, and wrote various essays that were published in papers across the nation including “Lynching from a Negro’s Point of View,” which ran in the North American Review in 1904. An accomplished educator, Terrell made history as the first black woman on the D.C. Board of Education from 1895-1911.
Terrell was an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), through which she developed a lifelong association with Susan B. Anthony. At the 1898 NAWSA convention, Terrell specifically appealed to the organization to fight for the enfranchisement of black women. Between 1904 and the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, she was active in the suffrage cause as a lecturer, writer and organizer in Washington, D.C. and across the nation. In 1904, she was the first black woman to attend the International Congress of Women in Berlin, where she delivered her speech in German, French, and English. She was a founding member of the NAACP, signing onto its charter in 1909.
In 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, Terrell led the Delta Sigma Theta sorority of Howard University in a strike organized by NAWSA in support of women’s suffrage. Two presidential terms later, she was involved in the Republican Party’s organizational efforts, campaigning for Warren G. Harding in 1919. Harding won the 1920 election, the first in which (predominantly white) women could vote. While the fight for women’s suffrage was settled, many black women, particularly in the South, remained disenfranchised. It would be decades before the Voting Rights Act overturned discriminatory voter registration laws. Knowing the fight was not over, Terrell remained a dedicated activist for the rest of her life.
In 1950, long after the fight for suffrage had been won, Terrell again gained visibility as an activist, this time in the fight for racial justice. That January, 86-year-old Terrell entered Thompson’s Restaurant in Washington, D.C., which was still segregated. The restaurant refused to serve Terrell and her companions. This set off a 3-year court battle, ultimately resulting in a unanimous ruling in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc., which formally desegregated Washington, D.C., restaurants.
Learn more about March Church Terrell in “Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation's Capital” by Joan Quigley, available at the Library.
2020 marks the centennial of women’s suffrage in the United States. Learn how Arlington County is commemorating this milestone of civil rights on the Arlington County website.