Biography of Mary Church Terrell

Mary Eliza Church Terrell was a renowned African-American activist who fought for racial equality and women’s suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th century.

She was the co-founder and first president of the National Association of Coloured Women, an American social activist. She was also a pioneering civil rights activist, educator and author.

Early life

Mary Church Terrell was born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee. She was the daughter of former slaves Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers Church, both prominent members of Memphis’ rising black society. 

Both of her parents had small, successful companies, giving “Mollie” and her brother privileges that few other African American children of her generation had.


In 1884, she graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio with a bachelor’s degree. 

She was a language instructor at Wilberforce University and a black high school in Washington, D.C. After a two-year tour of Europe, she graduated from Oberlin with a master’s degree in 1888.


On October 18, 1891, Mary Church Terrel got married to Robert Heberton Terrell, a lawyer who would go on to become the nation’s first black municipal court judge.


Terrell addressed a wide range of social issues over her long career, including the Jim Crow Law, lynching, and the convict lease system, as an articulate spokesman, adept political organizer, and prolific writer.

Her final act as a civil rights fighter was to lead a three-year campaign in the nation’s capital to end segregation in public dining establishments and hotels.

A Colored Woman in a White World was her autobiography, which was published in 1940.

Suffrage was a primary focus of Mary’s volunteer work. She strongly believed that real change would only be achieved once women had the vote. Mary spoke out frequently to inform suffrage leaders that not all suffragists were white and that Black women needed to be included in the effort.

“ Most girls run away from home to marry; I ran away to teach”.

Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrel Speeches

Mary had a reputation for being an eloquent orator. She travelled across the country and around the world, preaching her human rights message.

She addressed the International Congress of Women in Berlin, Germany, in 1904. She was the only person of colour in the room. Her speech was delivered in French, German, and English. Her grasp of three languages wowed the crowd, who gave her a standing ovation when she finished.

In 1949, Mary was invited by her friend Annie Stein to become the chairwoman of the newly formed Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the District of Columbia Anti-Discrimination Laws.

Under Mary’s leadership, CCEAD successfully fought to end segregation in restaurants, movie theatres, and other public places.

A few weeks later, the Black community in Washington, D.C., threw Mary a ninetieth birthday luncheon.

During the party, guests announced the creation of the Mary Church Terrell Fund, a charity that raised money to end Jim Crow discrimination in Washington, D.C.


Mary Church Terrel died in July 1954, less than two months after Brown v. Board of Education paved the way for far-reaching integration.

At the time, she was still fighting against segregation in the nation’s capital, with a specific focus on schools and places of work.

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