This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
When there’s any mention of the pivotal role Black women played in the suffrage movement, Mary Church Terrell is often among the first names spoken.
A warrior and a civil rights champion, Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1863 to formerly enslaved parents. Despite their bondage, her parents became successful business owners who could afford to send their daughter to college, according to the National Park Service (NPS), which lists Terrell among the “Suffrage Movement Leaders You Should Know.”
Terrell received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oberlin College in Ohio and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1887, where she taught at the M Street School, later known as Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.
According to NPS, her involvement in the early civil rights movement began in 1892 when a white mob in Memphis lynched her friend.
Along with Ida B. Wells, Terrell brought attention to the atrocity of lynching. She was also dedicated to racial uplift and firmly believed that African Americans would be accepted by white society if they received education and job training.
She hoped that if Black men and women were seen as successful, they would not be discriminated against. She dedicated herself to educating and helping other African Americans.
In addition to serving as president of the National Association of Colored Women, Terrell also supported the Black women’s right to vote. She even picketed the White House, demanding women’s suffrage.
In 1892, Terrell learned that Thomas Moss, a close friend from Memphis, had been lynched. After Terrell’s and Frederick Douglass’ appeals to President Benjamin Harrison failed to produce a public condemnation of lynching, she formed the Colored Women’s League in Washington to address social problems facing Black communities, according to BlackPast.org.
Four years later, Terrell helped create the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and became its first president. The NACW adopted the motto “Lifting As We Climb” and promoted racial uplifting through education and community activism.
During her tenure as president of the NACW, from 1896 to 1901, Terrell became a well-known speaker and writer in the United States and overseas. During a visit to Germany in 1904, she presented a speech to the International Council of Women entirely in German.
“I cannot help sometimes wondering what I might have become and might have done if I had lived in a country which had not circumscribed and handicapped me on account of my race, that had allowed me to reach any height I was able to attain,” Terrell was famously quoted as saying.
She also implored everyone to recognize Black citizens as Americans.
“Stop using the word ‘Negro,’” Terrell said. “The word is a misnomer from every point of view. It does not represent a country or anything else. I am an African American.”
Terrell died in 1954 in Annapolis, Maryland.