“And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ere long.” 

Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell was born on September 23, 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee. Although both of her parents were born into slavery, her family became one of the wealthiest and most educated African-American families in the South. Her father was the mixed-race son of a white steamboat captain, and he used the wages earned as a steward on the ship to invest in real estate. He is considered one of the first African-American millionaires in the American South. Her mother owned a successful hair salon (at a time most women did not own businesses). In 1875 the family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where Mary continued her education, graduating from Oberlin with a BA in 1884 – one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree. She had opted to follow the ‘gentleman’s path’ at Oberlin, studying for 4 years as opposed to the 2 year ‘ladies’ course. Four years later she earned her MA, and along with her classmate Anna Julia Cooper, was one of the first African-American women to earn a master’s degree. 

In 1885 Terrell began teaching at Wilberforce University. Two years later she moved to Washington, D.C. and took a position at the M Street School.  

In 1888 she took 2 years off of teaching to travel and study languages in Europe, before returning to M Street School. In 1891 she married Robert Heberton Terrell, and was forced to resign her position at M Street School because her husband taught there as well. 

In 1892 her passion for activism was sparked when an old friend, Thomas Moss, was lynched in Memphis. Moss’s business, a successful grocery store, was competing with local whites, who saw him as a threat. Moss, along with two other employees, were brutally murdered by a white mob. Known as ‘The People’s Grocery’ lynching, the murders also spurred the journalism of Ida B. Wells. 

In 1895 Terrell was appointed the superintendent of the M Street School – the first woman to hold that post. She was also the first African-American woman appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education.  

Terrell helped form the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, which counted among its members Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells. She also coined their motto “Lifting as we climb.”

Her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, was published in 1940. 

Terrell lived to see the May 17, 1954 ruling of Brown vs. the Board of Education that ruled the segregation of schools was unconstitutional. 

She died, July 24, 1954 at the age of 90. 

Lesson from Mary Church Terrell

“I cannot help wondering sometimes what I might have become and might have done if I had lived in a country which had not circumscribed and handicapped me on account of my race, that had allowed me to reach any height I was able to attain.” Terrell was outspoken about the prejudices she faced, and also attacked them full force – using education as her main tool in the fight again the world’s injustice. The strength and wisdom she showed helped pave a path for generations behind her toward the light of hope.

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