Mary Church Terrell Is Born

Mary Church Terrell—educator, political activist, and first president of the National Association of Colored Women—was born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee.

An 1884 graduate of Oberlin College, America's first college to admit women and amongst the first to admit students of all races, Terrell was one of the first American women of African descent to graduate from college. She earned her master's degree from Oberlin in 1888.

Terrell began her career as a teacher. After her marriage to Washington lawyer Robert Terrell, she became active in the National American Woman Suffrage Association where she became a spokesperson for the particular concerns of African-American women. A passionate advocate of education, Terrell sold her speeches during this period in order to raise money for a kindergarten.

Black women's groups were routinely excluded from national women's organizations during the late nineteenth century. It was their exclusion from participation in the planning of the 1893 World's Fair, however, that spurred Terrell and other black women leaders to form the National Association of Colored Women, organized in 1896. Also known as the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, it was created to serve as an umbrella organization for black women's groups throughout the country. Under Terrell's leadership, the NACW worked to achieve social and educational reform and to end discrimination based on gender and race.

Mary was born in Memphis, Tennessee to Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers, both former slaves. Robert Church was 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 Mary was six years old, her parents sent her to the Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio for her elementary and secondary education. Mary, known to members of her family as "Mollie," and her brother were born during the first marriage to her mother, which terminated in divorce. Robert, Jr., and his sister, Annette, were born during the second marriage to Anna (Wright) Church.

When Mary majored in classes at Oberlin College, she was an African-American woman among mostly white male students. Still, the freshman class elected her as class poet, and she was elected to two of the college's literary societies. Mary 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 known to have earned a college degree. Mary continued on to earned a master's degree from Oberlin in 1888.

Not only are colored women with ambition and aspiration handicapped on account of their sex, but they are everywhere baffled and mocked on account of their race…Desperately and continuously they are forced to fight that opposition, born of a cruel, unreasonable prejudice which neither their merit nor their necessity seems able to subdue.”

— Mary Church Terrell, "The Progress of Colored Women"