Suffragist Series: Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

by | Mar 1, 2022 | Research, Season Highlights

Suffragist Series highlights the fascinating suffrage activists that I researched as dramaturg for A Women’s Suffrage Splendiferous Extravaganza! (AWSSE!), a new vaudeville-inspired revue about the history of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States. It has been an eye-opening experience to confront how little I knew about the history of the women’s suffrage movement, and I look forward to sharing more about the lives and contributions of these remarkable activists. For more information about AWSSE! and to follow its newest developments, check out my projects.

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

Mary Church Terrell was an eminent Black writer, educator, and civil rights activist, who co-founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and was an original signatory of the charter to establish the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Born in Memphis to an affluent family, her parents, who were both formerly enslaved, were successful entrepreneurs. Her mother, Louisa Ayres Church, owned a hair salon, and Terrell’s father, Robert Reed Church, was the first African American millionaire in the South. Terrell’s parents stressed the importance of education, and Terrell attended Oberlin Academy and Oberlin College, where she received a Bachelor of Arts in Classical Languages, as well as a Master’s degree. Upon graduation, Terrell taught at Wilberforce College in Ohio, and in 1887, she moved to Washington DC to teach at the M Street Colored High School (which later became Dunbar High School).

Mary Church Terrell, ca. 1880-1900
Photo: Library of Congress

In 1892, Terrell grieved the loss of a close friend from Memphis, Thomas Moss, who was violently lynched by a white mob over the success of his business. Between 1877 and 1950, Moss was one of approximately 4,000 victims of lynching in the southern United States. [1] This tragedy spurred Terrell’s activism: she collaborated with her friend and famed journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931) to organize national anti-lynching campaigns, as well as lobbied President Benjamin Harrison with civil rights activist and author Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) to condemn lynching.

NAACP Silent Protest Parade, Fifth Avenue in New York City (1917)
Photo: Underwood and Underwood; Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Ida B. Wells, ca. 1893-1894
Photo: Ida B. Wells Papers; University of Chicago Library

In 1896, Terrell co-founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), serving as its first president. The NACW adopted her motto, “Lifting As We Climb,” which exemplified Terrell’s philosophy of community uplift to improve the daily lives of Black Americans and combat the virulent racial discrimination that they faced through education, activism, and employment opportunities.

“Lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long … Seeking no favors because of our color nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice and ask for an equal chance.”

Mary Church Terrell, “What Role Is the Educated Negro Woman to Play in the Uplifting of Her Race?” (1902)
Banner with motto of Oklahoma Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Photo: National Association of Colored Women (1896)
Mary Church Terrell (fourth from left) with activists picketing outside Murphy’s five-and-dime for refusing to serve African Americans (early 1950’s)
Photo: Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University Archives
Portrait of Mary Church Terrell
by Betsy Graves Reyneau (1888-1964);
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

In service of education for all African Americans, Terrell served on the Washington Board of Education from 1895 to 1901 and from 1906 to 1911. She was also a passionate advocate for women’s suffrage. Undeterred by the racism that coursed through the women’s suffrage movement, Terrell advocated for the voting rights of Black women, stating that suffrage was not only an essential tool for self-enfranchisement, but would also uplift all African Americans. At the biennial meetings of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), Terrell spoke in 1898 and 1900, stressing that Black women were forced to confront the double barriers of racial and gender discrimination. Terrell’s intersectional outlook deeply informed her activism as a suffragist; she picketed Woodrow Wilson’s White House with members of the National Woman’s Party and spoke at the International Council of Women in Germany in 1904, presenting her speech in German.

Terrell became a sought-after speaker and writer in the United States and abroad, and in 1940, she published her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, which described the successes, challenges, and discrimination she faced throughout her career as a Black woman activist and educator. After World War II, Terrell’s fight for social justice continued, and she worked to end legal segregation in Washington DC. While DC had passed anti-discrimination laws in the 1870’s, twenty years later, these laws had been eroded. African Americans were banned and excluded from public places, such as restaurants. In 1950, Terrell and her activist colleagues entered segregated Thompson Restaurant, asking to be served. The group was refused, and they sued. Terrell continued to target segregationist polices through boycotts, picketing, and sit-ins. In 1953, segregated eating places were declared unconstitutional in Washington DC, and in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

That same year, at the age of ninety-one, Terrell died in Highland Beach, Maryland. In the face of violence, ignorance, and prejudice, Mary Church Terrell tirelessly devoted her life to the advance of equal rights for Black Americans through supporting anti-lynching legislation and women’s suffrage, dismantling segregation laws, and advocating for equal access to education and economic opportunities for all.


  1. Kendra Kneisley, “Lifting As We Climb: The Life of Mary Church Terrell,” She Shapes History: Berkshire Museum,
  2. Tyina Steptoe, “Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954),” Black Past, January 19, 2007,
  3. “Mary Church Terrell,” National Park Service, January 16, 2020,
  4. Debra Michals, “Marcy Church Terrell,” National Women’s History Museum, 2017
  5. Allison Lange, “National Organization of Colored Women,” National Women’s History Museum, 2015,