Impressions of Washington: Mary Church Terrell’s Activism

Photograph of Mary Church Terrell as a young adult.
Mary Church Terrell as a young woman. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

Mary Church Terrell’s life was one bookended by two major turning points in African American history. She was born on September 23, 1863, nine months after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, and died July 24, 1954, two months after Brown v. Board of Education declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional.

As an educator, author, and activist, Mary Church Terrell played a role in the monumental civil rights advances of her lifetime, especially in Washington, D.C. As the first president of the National Association for Colored Women, the first African-American woman elected to a major city school board, and a founding member of the NAACP, Terrell was a lifelong advocate, participating in sit-ins well into her eighties. She even played a hand in the fight to desegregate D.C. theatres.[1]

Born in Memphis, Terrell was the daughter of Robert Reed Church, a former slave turned real estate entrepreneur whose wealth made him known as the first African-American “millionaire” of the South. In 1884, Mary Church Terrell became one of the first African-American women to graduate college, earning a degree in classics from Oberlin.

From there, she moved to Washington, D.C. and became a Latin teacher at the historic M Street High School. There she met fellow Oberlin graduate and future principal Dr. Anna J. Cooper and her future husband, Robert Heberton Terrell. Terrell was a Harvard graduate who became the first African-American to hold the position of justice  of the peace in the District and a longtime municipal judge.

Despite their education and wealth, the Terrells experienced Washington D.C. as second-class citizens. Judge Terrell faced a daily dilemma of maintaining law and order when the law denied African-Americans basic civil rights. The couple was denied housing when they attempted to move into the whites-only LeDroit Park. When Mary Church Terrell became the first African-American woman to sit on the D.C. school board in 1896, she was patronized or expected to represent all African-Americans.

Terrell decided to speak out against the systematic barriers in housing, education, and government which prevented African-Americans from living to their fullest potential as American citizens.

On October 10, 1906, Terrell gave a speech entitled “What it Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States” at the United Women’s Club in Washington, D.C. Her speech examined just how much racism permeated her daily life, as well as the long-term impact it had on African-American youth.   

“Washington, D.C. has been called ‘The Colored Man’s Paradise…'" began Terrell, “But it would be difficult to find a worse misnomer for Washington than the ‘Colored Man’s Paradise' if one knew the facts and had any regard for the truth.”

For fifteen years I have resided in Washington, and while it was far from being a paradise for colored people when I first touched these shores it has been doing its level best ever since to make conditions for us intolerable. 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. Unless I happened to know colored people who live here or ran across a chance acquaintance who could recommend a colored boarding-house to me, I should be obliged to spend the entire night wandering about. Indians, Chinamen, Filipinos, Japanese and representatives of any other dark race can find hotel accommodations, if they can pay for them. The colored man alone is thrust out of the hotels of the national capital like a leper.

She described in detail how she would not be served at many restaurants or boarding houses in the city or how she would be thrown out of a theater or a church. Although she had been fortunate enough to attend college, she outlined how education remained inaccessible for most African-Americans, who found themselves relegated to low-paying positions and subject to employment and housing discrimination.

And so I might go on citing instance after instance to show the variety of ways in which our people are sacrificed on the altar of prejudice in the Capital of the United States and how almost insurmountable are the obstacles which block his path to success. Early in life many a colored youth is so appalled by the helplessness and the hopelessness of the situation in this country that in a sort of stoical despair he resigns himself to his fate. When I taught in the high school of Washington the thoughtful boys would sometimes come to me and say: "What is the good of our trying to get an education? We can’t all be preachers, teachers, doctors and lawyers. Besides those professions, there is almost nothing to do but engage in menial occupations, and we do not need an education for that.’"Such remarks uttered by young men and women in our public schools who possess brilliant intellects have often wrung my heart.

It is impossible for any white person in the United States, no matter how sympathetic and broad, to realize what life would mean to him if his incentive to effort were suddenly snatched away. To the lack of incentive to effort, which is the awful shadow under which we live, may be traced the wreck and ruin of score of colored youth. And 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, 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.

When the speech was immortalized in her 1940 autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, it remained largely unchanged except for additional instances of discrimination. But D.C.’s demographics were changing. In 1957, it became the first major U.S. city to have a majority African-American population. Although true racial equality remained elusive, at the end of her life Terrell began to see Jim Crow laws crumble, with new generations of activists taking her words of justice and perseverance to heart. 

 

Sources:

Terrell, Mary Eliza Church. A Colored Woman In A White World. District of Columbia: Ransdell Printers and Publishers, Array, 1940.

 

Footnotes

  1. ^ Arnold de Mille, “Mary Church Terrell Honored At Cotillion,” The Chicago Defender, January 16, 1954.