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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 776

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This is the grave of Mary Church Terrell.

Born in 1863 to freed Black parents in Memphis, Mary Church grew up in the limited Black elite of the time. Of course, this meant she had a lot of white blood in her since the white use of sexual labor of slaves helped create this scenario. But to get a sense of just how wealthy she grew up, her father is probably the first Black millionaire in Memphis history after buying up large swaths of property during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic.

Wanting their daughter to have the best possible education in Jim Crow America meant sending her north. From the age of 7, she attended school at the Yellow Springs Model School in Ohio, that little center of progressive thought outside of Dayton. She then attended school in Oberlin and went to college at Oberlin as well, where she majored in Classics. Oberlin had long allowed both white women to attend, but Church was among the first Black women, along with Anna Julia Cooper and Ida Gibbs Hunt. The three of them would work closely together for the rest of their lives.

Church was deeply committed to education and started teaching at Wilberforce, that jewel of Black education, in 1885. She went on to get a Master’s degree from Oberlin in Classics in 1888. She taught in Washington for awhile, took a long trip to Europe where she learned several languages, and married Robert Terrell in 1891. She had to leave her job in Washington when she married because he taught there as well. She instead took another job as superintendent of Dunbar High School in 1895. Together, Mary Church Terrell and Robert Terrell would go on to be among the most important Black couples in American history. Given that she alone could have just wiled away her time, safe and secure with her father’s massive fortune backing her, that she didn’t says a lot about the Black elite at the time, who despite having various political ideologies, largely did a lot to work on racial problems that plagued everyone during the Jim Crow era. Terrell nearly went into domestic life and left politics after her marriage, but her mentor Frederick Douglass told her she was too important to enter into a traditional marriage like that. She listened.

Terrell became the leader of the Black club women’s movement in the 1890s. She was an initial founder of the Colored Women’s League in Washington in 1892 with such other leading women as Ida Wells-Barnett and Helen Appo Cook. She worked with Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin to create the National Association of Colored Women. Terrell became its first president in 1896 and in doing so became a leader in the fight against segregation in Washington, D.C., as well as pushing for better schools for Black children. She was a big enough deal by 1895 to be named to the D.C. Board of Education, where she served until 1908. She was the first Black woman to be on any Board of Education in the nation. As a general rule, she was less of a direct political activist than Ida Wells, who had become famous and risked her own life by exposing the reality of lynching and openly writing about voluntary interracial sex between white women and Black men. Although Wells and Terrell were certainly allies, the latter was more dedicated to racial uplift politics that focused on respectability and education.

Heavily involved in the various aspects of the Black freedom struggle and the fight for women’s suffrage, she had connections with white women’s suffrage activists such as Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony. Although far too many of the leaders of that movement had embraced white supremacy as a centerpiece of the argument for why white women should get the vote, Terrell evidently had positive relationships with them and was one of the only Black women to attend and speak at the National American Women Suffrage Association meetings.

Terrell and Ida Wells were the first two women to be members of the NAACP, in 1909. She spoke at international conferences, was an important Black leader in Republican Party circles during the 1920s, and was a senior figure in the freedom struggle through the next several decades. During World War I, she offered her services to the government and was finally named as a low-level clerk based in the South, but she faced so much discrimination from the other people in her department that she resigned. She was not one of the Black leaders who committed to the Democratic Party after seeing what FDR did. Traumatized by a lifetime of Democratic discrimination, she was an active supporter of Herbert Hoover, for instance, even in the midst of the Depression. Nothing if not politically ambitious, she claimed she would have run for the Senate herself if such a thing was possible for a Black woman.

In 1940, she published her autobiography A Colored Woman in a White World that laid out quite frankly the racial and gendered discrimination that she had experienced. She sued the American Association of University Women for its discriminatory policies and became the first Black woman in the AAUW after she won that suit in 1948. As late as 1950, she was starting to integrate dining establishments in Washington, filing a lawsuit with other leaders when they were refused service in a restaurant. She lived long enough to see these laws thrown out by the courts in 1953. She also lived just long enough to see Brown v. Board of Education be issued. She died in 1954 at the age of 90.

We should also mention a bit more about Robert Terrell here. While not the legend like his wife, he was an important figure in his own right. He was a well-known lawyer who had graduated from Harvard. Benjamin Harrison, the last Republican president to care about giving Black people patronage positions in the federal government (Wilson deserves his blame for segregating the government, but McKinley, TR, and Taft all laid the groundwork here), named him to a position in the Treasury Department in 1889 and then was named a Justice of the Peace in Washington in 1901 and then to the Municipal Court of D.C. in 1911 by Taft, one of his only high profile Black appointments. However, his health went bad far earlier than his wife and he died of a stroke in 1925.

The Library of Congress has digitized quite a bit of the Mary Church Terrell Papers, you can check that out and do some research of your own if you are so inclined. There’s also a new biography of her, published last year by the University of North Carolina Press, but I haven’t read it.

Mary Church Terrell and Robert Terrell are buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Suitland, Maryland.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations. Many thanks! In fact, this is the second time I’ve written up one of the graves on my recent trip to the South. There’s a lot more to come! If you would like this series to visit other leading Black women, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Gwendolyn Brooks is in Blue Island, Illinois and Ida Wells is in Chicago. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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