Publication Date

May 3, 2016


African American

Black Lives Matter, the protest movement launched by three African American women, has ignited a search for new role models. One Black Lives Matter co-founder, Patrisse Cullors, has cited the influence of Harriet Tubman; another co-founder, Alicia Garza, has invoked Sojourner Truth. And, as Jelani Cobb wrote recently in the New Yorker, Black Lives Matter has reclaimed a grassroots activist, Ella Baker, whose career included stints with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Yet the mostly women leaders of Black Lives Matter also have a spiritual ancestor in a pioneering civil rights activist who could have been their great-great grandmother: Mary Church Terrell.

A portrait of Mary Church Terrell by Betsy Graves Reyneau, 1946. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

A portrait of Mary Church Terrell by Betsy Graves Reyneau, 1946. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

I spoke about Terrell in March at the National History Center’s Washington History Seminar. I was struck by how her story resonates now. This is especially true as a new generation of African American women—including the feminist scholar Treva Lindsey, who spoke at an Oberlin College symposium devoted to Terrell in February—challenge racism and police brutality. Born in Memphis in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, Terrell graduated from Oberlin in 1884 and settled in the nation’s capital as a teacher. For all her advantages—including a wealthy father and a Harvard-educated husband—she faced what she called the double burden of race and sex. Like the founders of Black Lives Matter, she fought for better treatment. Today’s activists could learn much from her about success, misogyny, coalition building, and erasure.

At the dawn of the 20th century, Terrell had global reach on issues of race, gender, and equality, much like Black Lives Matter. As the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, she emphasized in a September 1897 speech that African American women intended to be “partners” in “progress and reform.” She gained international recognition as a speaker and writer. She took on some of the most contentious issues of her day: lynching; segregation in Washington, DC; and the Brownsville incident in 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt dishonorably discharged black troops accused of fomenting racial unrest. In 1909, as evidence of her stature, she was made a charter member of the NAACP.

Within the NAACP, though, she could not escape sexism. Over the decades, she saw women relegated to secondary roles, including membership in auxiliaries that raised money to finance the NAACP’s anti-discrimination litigation. Meanwhile, her half-brother, Robert R. Church Jr., who founded the NAACP’s Memphis branch, sat on the national board.

Ultimately, Terrell went her own way. In the 1940s, she gravitated toward labor leaders and progressive activists who were targeting Washington. With grassroots protests and nonviolent direct action, men such as Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph highlighted race discrimination in the defense industry, the military, and the capital’s segregated restaurants. As Terrell knew firsthand, Washington was indeed segregated, and had been for decades. Hotels, movie theaters, schools, and businesses barred people by race. Streetcars, Union Station, and federal government cafeterias were integrated.

Working outside the NAACP, Terrell confronted Washington’s racial status quo directly. It became her greatest achievement. On January 27, 1950, at the age of 86, she walked into a cafeteria located a few blocks from the White House. The manager refused to serve her and two of her colleagues because they were “colored.” She went to court, seeking to enforce Reconstruction-era laws that banned race discrimination by Washington restaurants.

As a grassroots activist, though, Terrell didn’t just wait for judges to decide her fate. She picketed outside dime stores, protesting Jim Crow lunch counters. She participated in a sit-in. When Hecht’s, a department store, refused to abandon its segregated lunch counter, she and her compatriots launched a boycott and a picket line. Eventually, in January 1952, the store began serving blacks.

Terrell lived to see vindication in court, too. On June 8, 1953, the Supreme Court unveiled a unanimous opinion, District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc., invalidating the capital’s restaurant segregation. The Thompson decision paved the way to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation ruling, a year later.

Terrell’s erasure began almost immediately, even before Brown. After Thompson, Ebony commissioned an essay about her memories of Frederick Douglass, whom she and her husband had known. The piece ran in October 1953. Only in a photo caption did the editors mention her Supreme Court victory. Even today, the NAACP’s Washington branch does not include her, on its web site, as one of the organization’s charter members.

If Mary Church Terrell were alive today, she would likely approve of the emergence of African American women, through Black Lives Matter, as activists for racial and gender equality. But as a former teacher, she might also offer advice: protest, litigate, and carve your own path if need be. As her life and legacy attest, people and organizations come and go, but the struggle endures, including her claim for recognition within the movement she helped shape more than a century ago.

is the author of Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation’s Capital(2016)

Established by the AHA in 2002, the National History Center brings historians into conversations with policymakers and other leaders to stress the importance of historical perspectives in public decision-making. Today’s author, , recently presented in the NHC’s Washington History Seminar program on “Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation’s Capital.” To watch a video of Quigley’s talk, please visit:

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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