BLACK WOMEN IN AMERICA: MARY ELIZA CHURCH TERRELL

She was a Black woman who stood and fought for the respect, dignity, bodily autonomy and agency for all Black women of her time and for all those Black women who came after her. She was an ardent champion of racial and gender equality and one of the 20TH Century’s most important Black women activists.

She led the fight against Jane Crow segregation when she was the first Black woman to integrate a white-owned restaurant in Washington, D.C. as well as the first Black woman principal at an academic high school.

Her name was Mary Eliza Church Terrell.

Here is her story.

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MARY ELIZA CHURCH TERRELL (b. September 23, 1863 – d. July 24, 1954), activist.

“A White Woman has only one handicap to overcome—a great one, true, her sex; a colored woman faces two—her sex and her race. A colored man has only one—that of race.” This provocative statement was made in 180 at the National Woman Suffrage Association convention in Washington, DC, by Mary Eliza Church Terrell, one of the twentieth century’s most important Black women activists. For more than sixty-six years, she was the ardent champion of racial and gender equality.

Born into the Black elite of Memphis, Tennessee, at the end of the Civil War, Ms. Church was the oldest child of Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers. In the early years of the marriage, Louisa supported the family running a hairdressing salon. Later, Robert’s investments in real estate made him a millionaire, purported to be the wealthiest Black American man in the American South. Ms. Church’s early years were spent in Memphis, a city convulsed by violent and bitter racism. Although she was sheltered as much as possible by her parents, who attempted to obliterate any trace of their slave beginnings, she could not avoid encountering racism when, after her parent’s divorce, her mother sent her to school in Ohio.

In response to her growing awareness of discrimination, Ms. Church resolved to excel academically to prove the abilities of Black Americans and especially Black women. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1884 and living with her father for a year, she took a teaching position at Wilberforce University in Ohio and, a year later, at M Street High School in Washington, DC. It was at the high school that she met her future husband, Robert H. Terrell.

 

Between 1888 and 186, Ms. Church was faced with two major decisions. First, as an intellectual, she had to decide whether to remain in the United States, where she would not be judged by her abilities but by her race and gender, or to seek a world free of prejudice. Second, as a woman, she had to decide whether to accept the Victorian ideal that a woman’s place was in the home. She decided to go to Europe. After two years, she decided to return to the United States as an advocate of racial elevation. She also married Robert Terrell.

In 1896, Ms. Terrell became the founder and first president of the National Association of Colored Women NACW), a self-help organization that offered sisterly support for its members and created programs that addressed racial problems through the elevation of Black women. Ms. Terrell believed that the amelioration of discrimination was contingent upon “the elevation of Black womanhood, thus both struggles are the same.”

Aware of the preponderance of Black married women in the work force, Ms. Terrell led the NACW in establishing socially progressive institutions such as kindergartens, day nurseries, and Mother Clubs, which functioned as depositories and disseminators of information on rearing children and conducting the home. Ms. Terrell’s objective was to improve the moral standards of the “less favored and more ignorant sisters,” because the world “will always judge the womanhood of the race through the masses of our women.”

Because of the contact between Mother Clubs and the masses of women, and the frequent loss of jobs held by Black women, Ms. Terrell broadened the functions of Mother Clubs to include social as well as economic concerns. She advised directors of Mother Clubs to study the effects of the lack of employment for Black men as well as women. In addition, she launched a fund-raising campaign to establish schools of domestic science. The NACW also established homes for girls, the aged, and the infirm. It emerged as a leading women’s organization, enhancing the lives of the masses and providing a vehicle for the emergence of middle-class women.

From 1896 to 101 Ms. Terrell defined and developed her role as a “New Woman,” which resulted in the development of purpose, independence, and vitality in her life. By 1901, Ms. Terrell was prepared to function as a leader outside the confines of women’s organizations. She began to move from an approach of black self-help to one of interracial understanding, advocating education as the way to this understanding. She hoped that unbiased research and intelligent dissemination of information to both White and Black peoples would spark better cooperation.

Ms. Terrell’s advocacy of advancing the race through improving the lives of Black women led to opportunities to comment on broader issues facing her race. She gave numerous speeches to highlight the improved living conditions of Black people and their progress in spite of discrimination. In a stirring address delivered in 1904 at the International Congress of Women in Berlin, she vividly described the numerous contributions of the Black race. She delivered the speech in German—she spoke three languages fluently, German, French, English—and received accolades for her depictions of black life and her intellectual abilities. Through these speeches, in which she exhorted her people to improve themselves, she became a booster of black morale.

Ms. Terrell also wrote articles and short stories on lynching, chain gangs, the peonage system, defection of mulattoes, and the disenfranchisement of Black Americans. In her writings, she sought to further interracial understanding by educating White people about the realities of black life.

Ms. Terrell’s actions were undertaken with the same conviction of racial equality that she demonstrated in her writings and speeches. Uncompromising and unequivocal, she never hesitated to criticize southern White liberals, northerners, or even members of her own race if she felt that their positions were not in the best interest of humanity. When the republican president Theodore Roosevelt disbanded several companies of black soldiers, Ms. Terrell vehemently attacked his decision, despite the fact that her husband owed his federal judgeship to the Republican party. In an article, “Disbanding of the Colored Soldiers,” she asked Black Americans to “regard the terrible catastrophe which has filled the whole race with grief as an evil out of which good will eventually come.”

The last decades of Ms. Terrell’s life marked a transition in her position on race relations and politics. Frustrated by the economic hardships of Black Americans during the Great Depression and the New Deal era, dismayed by the irony that Black Americans were fighting for democracy abroad during World war II but denied it at home, and grieved by the death of her husband, Ms. Terrell became a militant activist, working assiduously to bring a definitive end to discrimination in the United States, particularly in the nation’s capital.

In later life, Ms. Terrell was most noted for leading a three-year struggle to reinstate 1872 and 1873 laws in Washington, DC, that “required all eating-place proprietors to serve any respectable well-behaved person regardless of color, or face a $1,000 fine and forfeiture of their license,” which had disappeared in the 1890s when the District code was written. On February 28, 1950, Ms. Terrell, accompanied by one White and two Black collaborators, Rev. William H. Jernagin, pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, and Geneva Brown, the secretary-treasurer of the United Cafeteria and Restaurant Workers Union, entered Thompson Restaurant, one of several segregated public eating establishments. Thompson refused to serve the Black members of the interracial party. Immediately Ms. Terrell and her cohort filed affidavits. The case of District of Columbia v. John Thompson became a national symbol against segregation in the United States.

Throughout the three-year court struggle, Ms. Terrell targeted other segregated facilities. Confronted with the intransigence of proprietors of restaurants, she realized that the earlier weapons of moral persuasion and interracial dialogue were incapable of abolishing segregated facilities. She armed herself with such direct-action tactics as picketing, boycotting, and sit-ins. Finally, on June 8, 1953, the court ruled that segregated eating facilities in Washington, DC, were unconstitutional.

This ardent fighter who had fought the good fight for civil rights lived to see the U.S. Supreme Court mandate the desegregation of public schools in Brown v. Board of Education.

Two months later, she died.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

A Colored Woman in a White World (1940), Mary Church Terrell. New York: G.K. Hall, 1996.

Quest for Equality: The Life and Writings of Mary Church Terrell, 1863-1954, Beverly W. Jones. Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1990.

The papers of Mary Church Terrell are located at the Library of Congress and in the Moorland-Springarn Collection at Howard University, Washington, DC.

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