Terrell, Mary Eliza Church

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Terrell, Mary Eliza Church

Mary Eliza Church Terrell was an influential African American writer, lecturer, and social activist, whose work began when the separate-but-equal doctrine of racial Segregation was adopted by the U.S. legal system and ended as the U.S. Supreme Court, in brown v. board of education of topeka, kansas, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), rejected the doctrine of state-sponsored segregation. Terrell was also an advocate of Women's Rights, including the right to vote.

"If we fight, we get our rights. We're second-class citizens because we sit idly by."
—Mary Eliza Church Terrell

Mary Church was born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee. She was raised in a middle-class family and attended Oberlin College in Ohio, graduating in 1884. She taught at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, in 1885 and at a secondary school in Washington, D.C., in 1886 before taking a two-year tour of Europe. In 1888 she obtained a master's degree from Oberlin and married Robert Heberton Terrell, an attorney who would become the first African American municipal judge in Washington, D.C.

Terrell became an active member of the National American Suffrage Association and focused her attention on the special concerns of African American women. In her 1896 pamphlet,"The Progress of Colored Women," Terrell noted the "almost insurmountable obstacles" that had confronted African American women. Not only were "colored women with ambition and aspiration handicapped on account of their sex, but they are everywhere baffled and mocked on account of their race."

In 1896 Terrell founded the National Association of Colored Women and established its headquarters in Washington, D.C. As the first president, Terrell used the association as a means of achieving educational and social reform and bringing an end to racial and Sex Discrimination. She was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education in 1895, the first African American woman to hold such a position.

Terrell became a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and continued her Civil Rights crusade through the 1950s. She worked for the end of racial segregation and other barriers that affected the rights of African Americans. In 1949 Terrell was admitted to the Washington chapter of the American Association of University Women, ending the association's all-white membership policy. In 1950, at age eighty-seven, Terrell began a campaign to end segregation in restaurants and hotels in Washington, D.C. Three years later she achieved her goal.

Terrell published her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, in 1940. She died on July 24, 1954, in Annapolis, Maryland.

Further readings

Fradin, Dennis B., and Judith Bloom Fradin. 2003. Fight On!: Mary Church Terrell's Battle for Integration. New York: Clarion Books.

Jones, Beverly Washington. 1990. Quest for Equality: The Life and Writings of Mary Eliza Church Terrell, 1863–1954. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson.

Terrell, Mary Church. 1996. A Colored Woman in a White World. New York: G.K. Hall.