Profile: Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954)

Mary Church Terrell was a charter member of the NAACP and an early advocate for civil rights and the suffrage movement.

Who Was Mary Church Terrell?

Mary Church Terrell was the daughter of small-business owners who were formerly enslaved people. She attended Oberlin College. Terrell was a suffragist and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women and — at the suggestion of W.E.B. Du Bois — a charter member of the NAACP.

Early Years

An influential educator and activist, Mary Church Terrell was born Mary Eliza Church on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee. Her parents, Robert Reed Church and his wife, Louisa Ayers, were both former enslaved people who used their freedom to become small-business owners and make themselves vital members of Memphis’ growing Black population.

From an early age, Terrell and her brother were taught the value of a good education. Hardworking and ambitious, Terrell went on to attend Oberlin College in Ohio, where, in 1884, she became one of the first African American women to earn a college degree. Four years later she earned her master’s degree in education.

Around this time she met Robert Heberton Terrell, a talented attorney who would eventually become Washington, D.C.’s first Black municipal judge. The couple married in 1891.

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