"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, yawn so wide and deep."
Mary Eliza Church was born on September 23, 1863 to free, middle-class parents in Memphis, Tennessee. She attended elementary and high school in the north, and received a bachelor's degree in the classics from Oberlin College in 1884, serving as editor of the Oberlin Review and being named class poet. She was one of the first African American women in the country to earn a college degree. She then taught at Wilberforce College in Xenia, Ohio and at M Street High School (now Dunbar High) in Washington DC before returning to Oberlin for a master's degree. She then studied in Europe for two years, and when she returned she married Robert H. Terrell, her supervisor at M Street.
Married women were not allowed to teach at the time, and she became active in women's suffrage and civil rights movements, writing and lecturing throughout the south and the east. In 1896 she became president of the newly-founded National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. She served on the Washington DC Board of Education from 1895 through 1906, the first African American woman in the country to hold such a position. In 1904 she was invited to participate at the International Congress of Women in Berlin, and she gave her speech in German and French as well as English.
Ida Wells-Barnett, Terrell was one of the two African American women signing the call that led to the formation of the NAACP in 1909. She was also a founder and charter member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. During World War I she worked with the War Camp Community Service, providing recreation and demobilization help for African American servicemen. After the war she was a delegate to the International Peace Conference in London. When the 19th amendment gave women the vote she was elected president of the Women's Republican League during Harding's campaign in 1920.
Terrell continued her public appearances for civil rights with the goal of educating the white population about the discrimination, lynching and disenfranchisement of African Americans. In 1950 at the age of 86 she participated in a sit-in at Thompson's Cafeteria in Washington, and was part of a lawsuit filed when the group was not served. Three years later the Supreme Court in their favor, which was the beginning of desegregation in Washington. She died July 24, 1954 at the age of 90 in Annapolis, Maryland.
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"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." ~ James Baldwin
"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.