Mary Church Terrell

Lived:September 23, 1863—July 24, 1954 (aged 90)
Career:Journalist, activist for civil and women's rights
Education:B.A. and M.A,, Oberlin College

Mary Church Terrell was a writer, educator and activist for civil rights and women's suffrage.

Terrell was born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee. Her parents, both former slaves, were small business owners, and her father was the South's first African American millionaire. She graduated from Oberlin College in 1884 with a Bachelor of Arts in classical languages and earned a master's degree in education from Oberlin in 1888. After earning her bachelor's degree, Terrell taught at Wilberforce College (Ohio) and then at the M Street Colored High School in Washington, D.C. She resigned from her teaching post in 1891 to marry Robert Heberton Terrell, a lawyer who became the first Black municipal court judge in Washington, D.C.

After learning of the lynching death of a close friend in 1892, Terrell and Frederick Douglass unsuccessfully appealed to President Benjamin Harrison to publicly condemn lynching. That same year, she formed the Colored Women’s League in Washington. In 1896, she co-founded the National Association of Colored Women, becoming its first president. Terrell was also the first African American woman in the United States to be appointed to a school board of a major city, serving in the District of Columbia from 1896-1906.

By 1901, Terrell was a well-known speaker and writer and was involved in a number of civil rights and equal opportunity causes. She was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909 and a founding member of the National Association of College Women in 1910. She was also a leading spokesperson for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, even as segregationists tried to exclude Black women from the suffrage movement in the United States.

After World War II, Terrell fought to end legal segregation in Washington, D.C. In 1949, after winning an anti-discrimination lawsuit, she became the first African American admitted to the American Association of University Women.

Terrell died on July 24, 1954.