Celebrating Mary Church Terrell on Douglass Day 2021

Happy Douglass Day! This year, DouglassDay.org has dedicated part of the annual recognition of Frederick Douglass’s adopted February 14th birthday date weekend celebration to recognizing the life and work of Mary Church Terrell.

Part of this celebratory weekend has included a virtual group effort to transcribe, read, and teach the papers of Terrell, a pioneering Black activist and leader, in order to enrich her archives and make them available for future generations.

A biography of Terrell, Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell by Alison M. Parker was published in December 2020 by UNC Press. The following is an excerpt taken from the book’s introduction.

Mary (“Mollie”) Church began her life in an era of cruelty, tumult, and hope. She was born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee, some ten months after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. In spite of having been born into slavery, she grew up in a privileged household. She learned to use her class privilege, education, light skin color, and cross-class and cross-race connections tactically to work on a wide range of social justice and civil rights issues. From young adulthood on, Mollie Church Terrell became an educator, journalist, public speaker, organizer, and civil rights activist. She brought her energy, leadership, and determination through to the post–World War II Civil Rights Movement. After winning a 1953 legal challenge to District of Columbia segregation in the Supreme Court, Terrell lived just long enough to see the Court issue its 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

Unabashedly ambitious and passionate about social justice, Terrell claimed that she would have run for a U.S. Senate seat to pursue her civil rights agenda if not for the barriers that blocked African American women from attaining such positions of political power. In spite of such limitations, by the time of her death in 1954, Terrell had become one of the most prominent black women in the nation. One of the first African American women to earn a four-year bachelor’s degree in 1884 from Oberlin College, Mollie Church taught at Wilberforce University and then moved to Washington, D.C., to teach in the well-respected M Street Colored High School. In the 1890s, her role as an educator led to her appointment as the first black woman on the District of Columbia’s board of education. In 1896 she was elected as first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), and in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Terrell helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She became a paid speaker on the black and white lecture circuits, published newspaper articles, served as the only African American delegate to two international women’s conventions in Europe (which she addressed in fluent German and French), picketed the White House for woman suffrage, helped create the Woman Wage Earners’ Association during World War I, and was a founding member of the International Council of Women of the Darker Races. In the 1930s, she was active in the NAACP’s Washington, D.C., branch, joined with the Communist Party’s International Labor Defense on behalf of the Scottsboro Nine, worked as a clerk in Democratic New Deal agencies, and campaigned for Republican Party candidates. In the 1940s, she helped A. Philip Randolph organize the March on Washington Movement, initiated a lawsuit to integrate the American Association of University Women, and supported striking black cafeteria workers who were resisting signing anticommunist pledges. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Terrell spoke before congressional committees in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment. She also chaired two important committees affiliated with the Civil Rights Congress (CRC), a communist front organization. One committee demanded freedom for a black sharecropper, Rosa Lee Ingram, and her sons, who had struck out in self-defense but had been convicted of murdering her white male assailant. The other committee’s direct-action protests and legal challenges successfully dismantled segregation in the nation’s capital the year before Brown v. Board of Education. Over her long life, Mollie Church Terrell’s range of activism and alliances was extraordinary, and yet she has never before been the subject of a full-length scholarly biography.

Unceasing Militant tells a comprehensive life story of a woman who inhabited many worlds and whose life provides a timeline of civil rights activism from the 1890s through 1954. Flexible about her activist approaches, she moved back and forth from moral suasion to militant action on a case-by-case basis, always in service of her unflinching commitment to equal rights. In the 1890s, for example, she was likely to be organizing a meeting of an African American literary society, attending a black women’s club meeting, lobbying against lynching, and participating in a suffrage meeting. In the 1930s, she was likely to be playing bridge with friends, attending a union gathering, eating at an interfaith luncheon, still lobbying Congress for antilynching legislation, and attending an evening meeting of the NAACP. Terrell always approached the problems confronting African Americans and women from a number of angles at once, and her varied activities demonstrate her indefatigable energy as well as the value she placed on participating in multiple overlapping reform groups to achieve her goals of equality and justice for all.

Alison M. Parker is department chair and Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware.