Be inspired by activist and suffragette Mary Church Terrell


The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is proud to present the next page from Our American Story, an online series for Museum supporters. Despite the variety of uncertain news in the world today, one story continues to speak of powerful strength and uplift: the story of the African American experience. This legacy speaks of everyday heroism, profound resiliency, and the binding power of the community. We offer these stories to honor and celebrate an immensely rich history and culture—and to inspire and sustain our community as we move toward the future, together.
Mary Eliza Church Terrell was a renowned educator and speaker who campaigned fearlessly for women’s suffrage and the social equality of African Americans.

Image result for circular desk calendar owned by mary church terrell

Circular desk calendar owned by Mary Church Terrell

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, Mary Eliza Church was part of a changing America. She was the daughter of affluent African American parents, both of whom were previously enslaved. Her mother, Louisa Ayers Church, owned a hair salon. Her father, Robert Reed Church, was a successful businessman who would later become one of the South’s first African American millionaires.
Terrell’s parents sent her to Ohio to attend preparatory school at Antioch and later Oberlin College. There she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. At a time when women were not expected to achieve academically, Terrell excelled—and committed herself to pass on what she learned. After teaching for two years at Wilberforce College, she moved to Washington, D.C. to teach high school, where she met lawyer and future judge Robert Terrell. They married in 1891.

“Most girls run away from home to marry; I ran away to teach.”

— Mary Church Terrell 

Although Mary Church Terrell’s life focused on education and progress, tragedy would spur her into activism.
In 1892, her childhood friend Thomas Moss was lynched in Memphis. Moss was the owner of People’s Grocery, a successful wholesale grocery outside the city. He, like Terrell, represented progress, which many whites at the time felt was a direct threat to their own commerce and livelihood. The gunshot-riddled bodies of Moss and two of his employees were left on a railroad track just north of Memphis.

Terrell, along with journalist Ida B. Wells, organized anti-lynching campaigns to mobilize advocates and generate awareness. Later she would protest President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1906 discharge of 167 African American soldiers for unfounded conspiracy claims in Brownsville, Texas. She wrote columns and essays espousing the importance of dignity and respect for the soldiers and demanded a fair trial. Her efforts were to no avail at the time, although an Army investigation in 1972 led to the honorable discharges of all the soldiers, only two of whom were still alive.


Pin for the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs
Terrell held firm to the idea of racial uplift—the belief that blacks would help end racial discrimination by advancing themselves through education, work, and activism. Her words “lifting as we climb” became the motto of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the group she co-founded in 1896.
She also would go on to serve as one of the charter members of the NAACP, founded in 1909.

Understanding the intersectionality of race and gender discrimination, she lectured, penned essays, and spoke out on behalf of the women’s suffrage movement—even picketing the Woodrow Wilson White House with members of Howard University’s Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

Terrell was an active member of the National Association of Women’s Suffrage Act (NAWSA), where she worked alongside the organization’s founder, Susan B. Anthony. Terrell was invited to deliver two speeches on the challenges faced by women, and particularly women of color in America, at the International Congress of Women in Berlin in 1904. She was the only woman of African descent invited to speak at the conference. She delivered her speeches in German, French, and English, receiving a standing ovation from the audience.

Terrell’s belief that education and activism would provide a path to equality was demonstrated by her devotion to both pursuits. A self-described “dignified agitator,” Terrell would fight, protest, and work on behalf of social progress for women of color for more than half a century.

While in her 80s, Mary Church Terrell joined efforts to end segregation in restaurants in Washington, D.C., which laid the groundwork for the 1953 court ruling that segregation in D.C. restaurants was unconstitutional. In 1954, two months after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, she passed away at her home in Highland Beach, Maryland, a Chesapeake Bay resort community for affluent African Americans founded by one of Frederick Douglass’s sons.

From her tireless efforts to pass the Nineteenth amendment 100 years ago to serving as the first black woman on the Washington, D.C. Board of Education, Terrell’s work continues to echo throughout the world today. Her commitment to change opened countless doors of opportunity for those who came after her.
Her legacy endures in the hearts and minds of those continuing the fight for a world with more educated and empowered black women. From Civil Rights leaders and feminists of the 1960s to contemporary activists and trailblazers, many have and will continue to invoke Terrell’s fighting—and dignified—spirit.
The Museum helps connect individuals with a deeper understanding of the African American story by sharing the lives of inspiring pioneers like Mary Church Terrell, who demonstrate the impact one person can make on the world. Please help the Museum continue this important work and consider joining the Museum or making a donation today.

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Opera glasses and case owned by Mary Church Terrell. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Ray and Jean Langston in memory of Mary Church and Robert Terrell.
Gelatin silver print of Mary Church Terrell by Addison Scurlock, ca. 1910. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Ray and Jean Langston in memory of Mary Church and Robert Terrell.
Service award pin for Mary Church Terrell from the National Association of Colored Women, 1900. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Ray and Jean Langston in memory of Mary Church and Robert Terrell.
Circular desk calendar owned by Mary Church Terrell. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Ray and Jean Langston in memory of Mary Church and Robert Terrell.
Pin for the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Ray and Jean Langston in memory of Mary Church and Robert Terrell.
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Help us show the frontline medical staff at Johns Hopkins how much we appreciate their service


Across the country, frontline medical staff are working overtime to ensure our communities are safe and healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic (also known as coronavirus). Every day, the frontline hospital staff at Johns Hopkins, for example, put their lives at risk to treat the growing number of people with coronavirus. Johns Hopkins is not only a world-renowned hospital, but it is a hospital that serves a tremendous number of Black people in Baltimore. And because of their dedication to our community, and the sacrifices they are making to keep treating people, we want to show the medical staff — particularly working class staff like orderlies, nurses, and cleaning staff — at John Hopkins how grateful we are for their service.

Frontline medical staff are heroes. So, we’d like to provide help where we can, by contributing healthy snacks, coffee, and energy drinks to the staff at Johns Hopkins, who serve one of the most high-density, low-income Black communities in the country.

CONTRIBUTE NOW and help us raise $5000 to provide care packages for the frontline medical staff who are working overtime to protect us during the spread of coronavirus.

Sep 15, 1963: Four black schoolgirls killed in Birmingham ~ Women’s History Month

The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwis...
The four girls killed in the bombing (Clockwise from top left, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On this day in 1963, a bomb explodes during Sunday morning services in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls.

With its large African-American congregation, the 16th Street Baptist Church served as a meeting place for civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., who once called Birmingham a “symbol of hardcore resistance to integration.” Alabama’s governor, George Wallace, made preserving racial segregation one of the central goals of his administration, and Birmingham had one of the most violent and lawless chapters of the Ku Klux Klan.

The church bombing was the third in Birmingham in 11 days after a federal order came down to integrate Alabama’s school system. Fifteen sticks of dynamite were planted in the church basement, underneath what turned out to be the girls’ restroom. The bomb detonated at 10:19 a.m., killing Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins–all 14 years old–and 11-year-old Denise McNair. Immediately after the blast, church members wandered dazed and bloodied, covered with white powder and broken stained glass, before starting to dig in the rubble to search for survivors. More than 20 other members of the congregation were injured in the blast.

When thousands of angry black protesters assembled at the crime scene, Wallace sent hundreds of police and state troopers to the area to break up the crowd. Two young black men were killed that night, one by police and another by racist thugs. Meanwhile, public outrage over the bombing continued to grow, drawing international attention to Birmingham. At a funeral for three of the girls (one’s family preferred a separate, private service), King addressed more than 8,000 mourners.

A well-known Klan member, Robert Chambliss, was charged with murder and with buying 122 sticks of dynamite. In October 1963, Chambliss was cleared of the murder charge and received a six-month jail sentence and a $100 fine for the dynamite. Although a subsequent FBI investigation identified three other men–Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Cash and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr.–as having helped Chambliss commit the crime, it was later revealed that FBI chairman J. Edgar Hoover blocked their prosecution and shut down the investigation without filing charges in 1968. After Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the case, Chambliss was convicted in 1977 and sentenced to life in prison.

Efforts to prosecute the other three men believed responsible for the bombing continued for decades. Though Cash died in 1994, Cherry and Blanton were arrested and charged with four counts of murder in 2000. Blanton was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Cherry’s trial was delayed after judges ruled he was mentally incompetent to stand trial. This decision was later reversed. On May 22, 2002, Cherry was convicted and sentenced to life, bringing a long-awaited victory to the friends and families of the four young victims.