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 College External, 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, . African-American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections 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.
- Consult the Mary Church Terrell: Online Resources Web guide to locate additional resources on Terrell.
- Learn more about the work of African-American educators and reformers by browsing the subject index of African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection.
- Search the collection Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years on the keywords African American to retrieve items such as a chapter from a draft manuscript of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.
- Learn more about the history of the struggle for civil rights in the online exhibition The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship
- Search Today in History on suffrage or civil rights to learn about more events and leaders in the struggles for women’s right to vote and civil rights for people of color.
- Search on Mary Church Terrell in the collections of prints, photographs, and drawings to find images.
- Consult the following online resources to obtain more information pertaining to African-American history: