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Mary Terrell, advocate of women’s rights

Published: 
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Great black women in history

One of the reasons slaves were separated from common tribes at the time of their capture and shipment to various colonies was to cut any form of communication among them to ensure no plan of escape or revolt would take place. Slaves were not allowed to read or write to also prevent this from happening. They were not educated because if they were, they were more likely to resist slavery, as we saw in the case of Toussaint L’Overture, the slave who defeated Napoleon. One woman who made her name known to the world as the first coloured woman to earn a college degree is Mary Church Terrell. She is featured in today’s Great Black Women in History series. Look out for next Wednesday’s feature on Shirley Chisholm, first elected African-American women to have a seat in Congress.

History
Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, to Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers, both former slaves.
Robert Church was mixed-race and said to be the son of his white master, Charles Church. He reputedly became a self-made millionaire from real-estate investments in Memphis and was married twice. When Terrell was six years old, her parents sent her to the Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for her elementary and secondary education. Terrell majored in classics at Oberlin College, she was an African-American woman among mostly white male students. The freshman class nominated her as class poet, and she was elected to two of the college’s literary societies. She also served as an editor of the Oberlin Review. When she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1884, she was one of the first African-American women to have earned a college degree. Terrell earned a master’s degree from Oberlin in 1888.
She went on to teach at a black secondary school in Washington, DC, and at Wilberforce College, an historically black college founded by the Methodist Church in Ohio. She studied in Europe for two years, where she became fluent in French, German, and Italian.

On October 18, 1891, in Memphis, Terrell married Robert Heberton Terrell, a lawyer who became the first black municipal court judge in Washington, DC. As a high school teacher and principal, Terrell was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education, 1895-1906. She was the first black woman in the United States to hold such a position. In 1896, Terrell became the first president of the newly formed National Association of Coloured Women’s Clubs (NACWC). NACWC members established day nurseries and kindergartens, and helped orphans. Also in 1896, she founded the National Association of College Women, which later became the National Association of University Women (NAUW). The League started a training programme and kindergarten before these became included in the Washington public schools. The success of the League’s educational initiatives led to her appointment to the District of Columbia Board of Education. She also had a prosperous career as a journalist and wrote for a variety of newspapers published either by or in the interest of coloured people.

In 1904 Terrell was invited to speak at the International Congress of Women, held in Berlin, Germany. She was the only black woman at the conference. Terrell received an enthusiastic ovation when she honoured the host nation by delivering her address in German. In 1909, Terrell was one of two black women (Ida B Wells-Barnett was the other) invited to sign the “Call” and to attend the first organisational meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), where she became a founding member. In 1913-1914, she helped organise the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. More than a quarter-century later, she helped write its creed that set up a code of conduct for black women. In 1940 Terrell wrote an autobiography, A Coloured Woman in a White World. Terrell lived to see the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education, holding unconstitutional the segregation of schools by race. She died two months later at the age of 90, on July 24, 1954, in Anne Arundel General Hospital. (Information on Mary Church Terrell from Wikipedia.com)

Mary Church Terrell, first black woman to earn a college degree.

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