Mary Church Terrell: An African American Woman of Distinction and Achievement

Written by Hiddentruths

By Angela L. Braden

Mary Church Terrell was born September 23, 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee to Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers, who were both slaves prior tothe Emancipation Proclamation.  Mary’s father, Robert Reed Church, who was said to be the most wealthy African American in the antebellum south, was an entrepreneur and real estate mogul in the Memphis area.  Her mother, Louisa Ayers, was the owner and operator of a successful beauty salon.  Being the daughter of two mulattos, upper class African Americans, Mary had access to educational opportunities that many other African American children in her cohort could not even imagine.


After the divorce of Mary’s parents, Mary moved to New York at the age of six with her mother, who opened yet another successful beauty salon in New York.  Mary’s parents felt that she could get a better education in the north than what was available to African Americans in the south.


Mary was later sent to Yellow Springs, Ohio, where she received an uppercrust, grade school education at the Antioch College Model School.  After graduating from high school, she enrolled in Oberlin College, a private liberal arts college that was one of the first institutions of higher education to admit and educate women and African Americans alongside white males.


Mary majored in classics and excelled among her mostly white male classmates.  She was held with high esteem by her professors and classmates.  Proof of this was when she was voted class poet by her freshman class.  She was also elected to two of the college’s literary societies.  In addition, Mary served as the editor of the Oberlin Review, a notable achievement for any Oberlin College student.

Possessing the distinction of being one of the first African American women to earn a bachelors degree in the United States, She graduated from Oberlin College with a bachelors of arts in 1884.  She later earned her masters degree from Oberlin College in 1888, yet another phenomenal achievement for an African American woman.

Mary began her teaching career at Wilberforce College, a historically black university in Ohio, established by the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Mary was very proud to teach at this college, being that Wilberforce College is said to be the first college owned and operated by African Americans in the United States.

After ending her very short stent at Wilberforce College as a professor, Mary’s father sent her to Europe to study.  Although Mary enjoyed the many freedoms and liberties offered to a black woman in Europe, she still wanted to return to the United States, where she desired to fight for the equality of African Americans and women.

Upon arriving in the United States, she continued her teaching career at the M Street School in Washington D.C, a highly esteemed, academic school, where she would later serve as the principal.  It is there, where she met Robert Terrell, a Washington D.C. lawyer and a Harvard grad, who later became Washington D.C.’s first African American municipal judge.  In 1891, the couple was married in Mary’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.

After marrying Robert Terrell, Mary dedicated her life and energy to the fight for equal rights for African Americans and women.  She joined with WEB Du Bois and other African American leaders to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.  She was also one of the founders and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women.

In 1895, Mary was appointed to the school board in Washington D.C.  She would be the first African American woman to sit on the board.  She served two terms; 1895 to 1991 and again from 1906 to 1911.

Mary died July 24, 1954 at the age of ninety in Annapolis Maryland.

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