She was born to former slaves in Memphis, Tennessee on September 23, 1863. The life of Mary Church Terrell was not an easy one, but it was one of trailblazing and pioneering. A remarkable woman of many firsts, she became one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree in 1884 from Oberlin College in Ohio. From there, she earned her master’s degree and became the first African-American woman appointed to a school board. She would later marry an attorney named Robert Heberton Terrell, who became Washington, D.C.’s first Black municipal judge.
Although she was on the cutting edge of gender activism, Terrell was excluded from participating in national women’s organizations, which often excluded black women. At a speech before the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1904, Terrell exclaimed: “My sisters of the dominant race, stand up not only for the oppressed sex, but also for the oppressed race!” Church’s pleas were answered with an assault so violent, that her clothes were literally beaten from her body by her “sisters” in arms.
Terrell reasoned that if she could not beat them or join them, she would make her own platform and organize in her own community without them. So in 1896, she founded the National Association of Colored Women. She served as its first national president while becoming a founding member of the National Association of College Women in 1910. While she undoubtedly stood for equal rights for women, she was careful to align her movement with the broader struggle of black women and black people for equality. Thus she was without the troublesome influence of outside agendas. Terrell had a close relationship with Frederick Douglass with whom she worked on several civil rights campaigns.
Terrell was a Republican. She was president of the Women’s Republican League during Warren Harding’s 1920 presidential campaign. Terrell allegedly stated of the party: “Every right that has been bestowed upon blacks was initiated by the Republican Party.” Oh what a difference 90 years makes! A pioneer in judicial guerrilla warfare, she initiated lawsuits against segregated restaurants in D.C. Her tactics included boycotts, picketing, and sit-ins half a decade before the Montgomery Bus Boycott. In 1940, she would pin her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World. The autobiography tells a remarkable story of a true rebel against the forces that were destructive to black life.
Mary Church Terrell advocated for the interests of women without alienating her community. She blazed a trail against the repressive tide of Jim Crow while working shoulder to shoulder with the greatest black abolitionist of the 19th century. Unlike 20th and 21st century feminism, Mary Church Terrell’s feminism did not alienate black men, it recruited them. She joined them in an implacable struggle against the insidious machinations of state violence and repression. She fought Jim Crow without the troubling confusion of women’s roles in the family. She created a movement without the acrimony of pitting black men against black women. She did it without the assistance of big free wheeling white liberals. She did it her way and in a way that made her one of the most powerful black women of her time.
It is important that she be remembered. She was a true feminist. She was a true pioneer. She was our rider. She was a hero. She is a legend.
TONY MACEO is a senior blogger at the negromanosphere. Like and share the articles and become a subscriber to the You Tube Channel. Also become a Patron @ Powerofstrategies on Patreon. TILL NEXT TIME, I’LL HOLLA!