Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell—educator, political activist, and first president of the National Association of Colored Women—was born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee. An 1884 graduate of Oberlin CollegeExternal, America’s first college to admit women and amongst the first to admit students of all races, Terrell was one of the first American women of African descent to graduate from college. She earned her master’s degree from Oberlin in 1888.

Not only are colored women with ambition and aspiration handicapped on account of their sex, but they are everywhere baffled and mocked on account of their race…Desperately and continuously they are forced to fight that opposition, born of a cruel, unreasonable prejudice which neither their merit nor their necessity seems able to subdue.

The Progress of Colored Women, by Mary Church Terrell. Washington, D.C.: Smith Brothers, Printers, [1898]. African-American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

Mary Church Terrell, three-quarter length portrait…. ca. 1880-1900. Free to Use and Reuse: Images of African American Women Changemakers. Prints & Photographs Division

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, serving until 1905 and again from 1906 to 1911.

Black women’s groups were routinely excluded from national women’s organizations during the late nineteenth century. It was their exclusion from participation in the planning of the 1893 World’s Fair, however, that spurred Terrell and other black women leaders to form 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. Under Terrell’s leadership, the NACW worked to achieve social and educational reform and to end discrimination based on gender and race. In 1940, Terrell wrote her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, a work that used her own more than seventy years of life as an example of the difficulties that blacks faced in a predominantly white society.

Oberlin College scene, student body & faculty in front of Memorial Hall, 1906. R.W. Johnston, 1906. Panoramic Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

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