The lasting legacy of Mary Church Terrell’s fight for equality

Nacala Williams

The daughter of former slaves, Mary Church Terell knew that job training and education were key to Black peoples’ success. 

Born in Memphis, Tennessee on September 23, 1863, she later became a teacher at what is now Dunbar High School and served on the Board of Education of Washington, DC for 11 years. 

Terrell became active in the early Civil Rights Movement in 1892 when her close friend was lynched. Terell and Ida B. Wells brought attention to the horrors of lynching by organizing anti-lynching campaigns. She strongly believed Black women should have the right to vote and picketed outside of the White House to show her support for the women’s suffrage movement.

In 1896, she helped form the National Association of Colored Women and served as its President until 1901. The organization worked to end race and gender discrimination, focusing on education initiatives for Black people that had great success. 

Terrell also fought to end discrimination policies in D.C. restaurants. Anti-discrimination laws were enacted during the 1870’s. However by the 1890’s, Black people were banned from public places. In 1950, she organized boycotts and sit-ins; her sit-ins prompted a lawsuit and were proven successful when in 1953 the Supreme Court ruled that segregated eating places in Washington, D.C were unconstitutional.

Through bringing attention to the lynching of Black people while uplifting Black people through education, Mary Church Terrell dedicated her life to activism in an effort to end race and gender discrimination.