African American Odyssey Introduction | Overview | Object List | Education Materials

Rights for African American Women

What�s the Main Idea?

Object Description

Biography: Mary Church Terrell

Biography: Madame C.J. Walker

Probing Further

Mary Church Terrell, The Progress of Colored Women
The Progress of Colored Women.
Smith Brothers, 1898
Daniel A.P. Murray
Pamplet Collection

Rare Book and Special
Collections Division

What's the Main Idea

Object Description

Mary Church Terrell was a member of the African American elite. As a speaker, writer, and political activist, she dedicated the lion's share of her talent to the pursuit of full citizenship for both women and blacks. In 1898, Terrell, then president of the National Association of Colored Women, gave this address before the all-white National American Women's Suffrage Association. She pointed out that for black women, access to education and employment were as important as the vote.


Mary Church Terrell
Born in 1863, to prosperous parents who were former slaves, Mary Church was able to take advantage of many opportunities not available to most blacks during that time. She became very educated receiving a B.A. in Classics and an M.A. from Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Fluent in German, French and Italian, she went on to teach languages at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio. She married a lawyer, Robert Heberton Terrell, who would become the first black municipal court judge in the nation's capital.

She is best remembered for her contribution to the struggle for the rights of black women; in 1896 she became the first president of the newly-formed National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which sought to achieve educational and social reform, and end discrimination practices. The NACW was necessary because members could not affiliate themselves with the National Council of Women, or the General Federation of Women's clubs due to exclusionary caveats. In the fight for racial uplift, Terrell sought to represent a different picture of black womanhood.

Terrell, in her role as President of the NACW, delivered a speech before the National American Women's Suffrage Association, on February 18, 1898, on the "occasion of its fiftieth year anniversary." In this address, entitled The Progress of Colored Women, Terrell subtly addresses the similarities between the plight of white women working towards equal rights, with the situation of black women fighting for the same opportunities. Or, as Terrell states, "[a]nd so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst forth into glorious fruition ere long." By showing the strides made by black women in spite of the continued efforts to keep them subjugated, Terrell gave concrete examples of her "colored sisters" and their college successes, their moral turpitude, their active religious and community work, the continuing work against racial violence, and their love of home and family. In short, she utilizes this moving address to elevate black women to the status of their white counterparts.

Terrell was articulate, intelligent and a prolific writer. She regularly spoke out against Jim Crow laws, lynching, the rights of women to vote, and issues concerning women in low-income and rural areas. She was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education, the first black women in the United States to hold this position, and has the distinction of being a co-founder of the Niagara Movement. She never stopped fighting against segregation and discrimination. In 1953, when she led the fight to end segregation in public facilities in Washington, D.C., Mary Church Terrell was 90 years old.

Madame C.J. Walker
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a Delta, Louisiana, plantation, this daughter of former slaves transformed herself from a laundress into one of twentieth-century's most successful, women entrepreneurs. Walker has the distinction of being the first self-made female millionaire, black or white.

She was the first freeborn member of her family, which included two siblings. Walker's parents died of yellow fever when she was only seven years-old. She and her older sister survived by working in the cotton fields around Vicksburg, Mississippi, and on the Delta. At 14, Sarah married Moses McWilliams to escape her cruel brother-in-law, and four years later gave birth to her daughter, Lelia. Tragically, Moses died two years later, leaving her a very young widow; in 1888 she and her daughter moved to St. Louis, where they had relatives. She worked as a washerwoman to put her daughter through school, and was opened up to new views of the world by friends she met at the A.M.E. church, and at the local office of the National Association of Colored Women.

By 1905, she was transferred to Denver as a sales agent for Poro, a black-owned company that made health and skin care products, and which was run by a woman, Annie Malone. There, she became reacquainted with a friend and newspaperman, Charles Joseph Walker, and married him the following year. Together, they sold "Madam C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, a "scalp-conditioning" formula door-to-door. Madam Walker included the title "Madam" because she felt the title conveyed a certain dignity and stature that she wanted to impart on her clients. Walker believed it was important for women to have some control over her own destiny, and actively sought local women to sell her products.

Walker temporarily moved to Pittsburgh in 1908, and opened a beauty parlor / training school for her employees, called Lelia College. In 1910, Madam Walker finally settled in Indiana, and the following year, the "Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company" incorporated. Walker had over 950 agents and was making approximately $1,000/month, during a time when the average unskilled white worker earned about $11, and few black women earned more than $1.50/week. Within a year, that figure would quadruple, with 1,600 agents (almost exclusively women) working for Walker and $1,000/week in revenue. Her marriage to C.J. Walker was less successful, and they divorced in 1912, although he did continue to work for her company.

Madam Walker said at the 1914 convention of the National Negro Business League, " I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself, for I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race." And, provide for them she did. She employed over 20,000 agents in the U.S., Central America, and the Caribbean by 1916, all of whom were able to provide money for their families. Walker was flamboyant, and refused to be silenced by her race or her sex. Her fancy clothes, home and cars, she believed, showed other blacks what could be achieved with opportunity and hard work. Walker was also a dedicated philanthropist, who understood the importance of putting her money back into her own community. Subsequently, she donated large sums of money to black organizations, and to support black-owned businesses.

Probing Further

  1. In The Progress of Colored Women, how does Terrell parallel the plights of white women seeking suffrage with blacks coming out of slavery? How does she use these issues to speak to many situations involving black women?

  2. At the turn of the century, many African American women were coming into their own, which is to say that they were outspoken proponents of major social causes, they were earning an education, and becoming successful business entrepreneurs, such as Madam C.J. Walker. Read the biography on Madam C.J. Walker. As black women, what obstacles do you think Walker and other African American women face in trying to further themselves?

  3. Terrell was born the year Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and Walker just three years later. In order to help educate former slaves who had only recently become free from enslavement, several aid organizations were created. These societies were comprised of both black and white men and women who wanted to help clothe, feed, shelter, and educate former slaves. Schools were established throughout the South to teach men, women, and children to read and write. One such school was the Sea-Island School, No. 1, St. Helena Island, which was established in April, 1862, after Union forces liberated slaves on this island off the coast of South Carolina. Read the letter written by the Board of the Pennsylvania Freedmen's Relief Association. What is its purpose? To whom would this letter have been sent?

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