Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights
By Kathryn S. Gardiner
“As a colored woman I might enter Washington any night, a stranger in a strange land, and walk miles without finding a place to lay my head.”
Mary Church Terrell
In 1904, suffragettes from around the globe gathered in Berlin, Germany, for the International Congress of Women. Mary Church Terrell was the only black woman in attendance and certainly the only one invited to speak. The audience met her with wild applause as she delivered her address first in German, then in French, and finally in English.
Mary Church was born in 1863 to freed slaves in Memphis, Tenn. Her parents, both of mixed race, became prominent in the black community of Memphis following the Civil War. Her father was the first black millionaire in the South and her mother the first black woman to maintain a hair salon at a time when very few women of any race owned businesses. Deeming the Memphis schools inadequate, Mary was sent to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to attend Antioch College Model School. She would remain in Ohio through college where she majored in Classics at Oberlin College, the first U.S. college to accept either black students or women. Indeed, Mary was the first black woman to attend Oberlin, but that wouldn’t be the only reason she stood out among her classmates.
At Oberlin, Mary was nominated class poet by her freshman class, elected to two literary societies, and even served as editor of The Oberlin Review. She also took the “gentleman’s path” to her degree, studying for a full four years rather than a woman’s usual two. Mary would go on to earn her master’s degree in education in 1888. She also studied in Europe, where she learned German and French.
In 1891, Mary married Memphis lawyer Robert Terrell. The two met during a brief overlap at a Washington D.C. school where Mary taught and Robert was the principal. Together the couple had four children, though only one, a daughter Phyllis, survived to adulthood. They also adopted a second daughter named Mary.
Soon after her marriage, Mary considered retiring from activism to focus on her family. She was encouraged to continue her public work by Frederick Douglass, whom she’d met at President James Garfield’s inaugural gala. He considered her talent too great to go unshared.
Since her days at university, Mary had been deeply involved in the suffrage movement. She enjoyed a “delightful, helpful friendship” with Susan B. Anthony and participated in the National American Woman Suffrage Association. The NAWSA’s work was limited, however, and she expanded her activism to the advancement of black people, specifically women, and the crisis of lynchings targeting black men. The latter drew her focus when her friend Thomas Moss was lynched in Memphis in 1892, killed because his business competed with another that was run by whites. She wrote extensively, spoke exhaustively, and sought to spur a community to action.
“…surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States,” she wrote in What It Means To Be Colored in the Capital of the United States, “because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep.”
Mary lived to the age of 90 and proved Frederick Douglass’s words true; she shared her gifts freely, passionately, and to great impact.
Under the penname Euphemia Kirk, Mary’s articles appeared in both black and white presses, often promoting the efforts of the African American Women’s Club Movement. She picketed and protested to integrate eating establishments and theaters, campaigned for presidents, fought for the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, and became one of the founders and charter members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. This is but a short list of her efforts.
Words she would write—“Lifting As We Climb”—would become the motto of the National Association of Colored Women, and this philosophy reveals itself as the backbone of her labors. In her writings, especially A Colored Woman in a White World, Mary examined how her own mixed-race heritage influenced her life, namely that her lighter skin often gave her greater acceptance among whites. She aimed to use that passage between communities to forge links between the disparate parts of United States society.
Mary died on July 24, 1954, only two months after the historic Supreme Court decision on Brown vs. the Board of Education ruling racial segregation of schools to be unconstitutional. The woman who stood alone as the first black woman at her college lived to see it become law that doors she fought to open could never again be shut.