Mary Church Terrell

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Contributed by Tania Padgett and Romon Mckenzie, Color of Justice

Mary Church Terrell was born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee. A renowned educator and speaker, she fought for women’s suffrage and equality for African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century. She was born into privilege as her father, Robert Reed Church was a well-regarded businessman, and one of the first African-American millionaires in the South. Her mother Louisa Ayres Church owned a successful hair salon. Terrell earned her bachelor’s from Antioch College laboratory school in Ohio and her master’s degrees from Oberlin College. She went on to become a teacher. Her hunger for activism began in 1892 when her old friend Thomas Moss was lynched in Memphis because his business was competing with a white-owned grocery. Terrell immediately joined anti-lynching campaigns, but her main goal was racial upliftment by ending racial discrimination and advancing African Americans through education, work and activism. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Women, where her phrase “lifting as we climb” became the organization’s motto. Terrell also served as its president from 1896 to 1901. By 1909, she had become one of the founders and charter members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, then co-founded the National Association of University Women in 1910. In 1913, she participated in a demonstration outside of the Woodrow Wilson White House with the National American Women Suffrage Association but was appalled when leaders of the group asked Black suffragists to march in the back. She and others refused to do this and integrated the march. In 1940, Terrell published her autobiography A Colored Woman in a White World, where she discussed her civil rights activism, the suffrage movement and the racism within it. She continued to fight for racial equality well into her 80s. In 1950, when she was 86, she fought to have restaurants desegregated in the District of Columbia. Her actions prevailed. Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated eating facilities were unconstitutional. Terrell passed away July 24, 1954. She was 90.