Mary Church Terrell’s Story

“I cannot help wondering what I might have become and might have done if I had lived in a country which had not circumscribed and handicapped me on account of my race, but had allowed me to reach any heights I was able to attain.”

– Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 23, 1863, the year the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. She was the daughter of former slaves, who were mixed race. Her father owned several successful businesses, and was one of the first Black millionaires in the South. As a result, Church Terrell and her siblings were able to have many opportunities that were not available to most African Americans at the time, including higher education. Her parents divorced when she was young, and sent her to boarding school in Ohio. 

Church Terrell attended Oberlin College, one of the first colleges to admit African Americans, and in 1888, Church Terell became one of the first African American women to earn both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. After graduating, Church Terrell taught classical languages at Wilberforce University, one of the nation’s first Black colleges and preparatory schools. She then went abroad for two years to study languages in France, Switzerland, Italy, and Germany. 

Church Terrell moved to Washington, D.C., where she taught Latin at M. Street High School, one of the first public high schools for African Americans. There, she met Robert Terrell, the chair of the languages department, whom she married in 1891. Robert Terrell was one of the first African American men to attend Harvard University, and would go on to become the first African American federal judge. 

In 1892, Church Terrell’s childhood friend Thomas Moss was lynched in her hometown of Memphis, because his business was considered competition by local white business owners. This tragedy had an incredible impact on Church Terrell, and she became one of the first people to speak out publicly about lynchings. She made speeches across the country and abroad about the need for federal intervention against lynchings, and the unequal conditions within African American communities caused by segregation and Jim Crow. Church Terrell also wrote several influential essays about lynching, including “Lynching from a Negro’s Point of View,” in 1904 in the journal The North American Review. 

In 1894, Church Terrell founded the Colored Women’s League with Anna Julia Cooper, with a mission to “promote the intellectual, social and moral accomplishments of African Americans,” and focused on improving education for African Americans. The League merged with the National Federation of Afro-American Women to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896, two months after the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision upheld racial segregation. Church Terrell coined the organization’s motto, “Lifting As We Climb,” and served as its president from 1896 to 1901. 

Church Terrell also served on the Washington, D.C. school board for over a decade, beginning in 1895, and became the first Black woman to serve on a board of education in the United States. 

Church Terrell was also a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Church Terrell saw voting rights as critical to the empowerment of African Americans, and marched at the 1913 Suffrage Parade, where she and other African American suffragists were forced to march in the segregated section at the back. Church Terrell also helped to organize the 1922 Silent March, to pressure Congress to pass anti-lynching legislation. 

In 1925, Mary Church Terrell began writing her memoir, A Colored Woman in a White World, which she was unable to sell to publishers, and self-published in 1940. 

In her eighties, Church Terrell led the movement to integrate restaurants in Washington, D.C., organizing some of the first sit-ins at segregated restaurants. At age 86, she instigated the groundbreaking 1953 U.S. Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. J.R. Thompson’s Co. Inc., which outlawed discrimination in public places in the nation’s capital. The case helped usher in school integration, paving the way for Brown v. Board of Education. Mary Church Terrell died of cancer two months after that decision was passed in the Supreme Court, on July 24, 1954, at the age of 91. 



Treva B. Lindsey, PhD is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at The Ohio State University. She is the author of the 2017 Choice Outstanding Academic Title, Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington, D.C. She is a 2020-2021 ACLS/Mellon Scholar and Society Fellow and was the inaugural Equity for Women and Girls of Color Fellowship at Harvard University. She is also the author of many articles and book chapters on African American history and culture and the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, grants and fellowships.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham is a social justice activist, educator, and writer. Leading at the intersection of culture and justice, she has and continues to build platforms to amplify, educate, and activate everyday people to take transformative action against every form of injustice. She is an NBC News and MSNBC contributor, former co-host of iHeart Radio’s Best Political Podcast of 2019, Pod Save The People, and is currently readying her own media platform from which to host broader conversations on social change. Brittany is a former elementary teacher, education executive and two-time Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. She was a member of President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Task Force and the Ferguson Commission. Brittany’s forthcoming book, We Are Like Those Who Dream, is due to hit shelves in 2021.

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