Learn about activist Mary Church Terrell

February 5, 2021

Last updated: February 13, 2021

What do you know about Mary Church Terrell? This year, we honored the writer, activist, and co-founder of the NAACP and the National Association of Colored Women during our annual Douglass Day celebration.

Access and activism 

Terrell was born in Memphis in 1863 to Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayres Church, wealthy entrepreneurs who were formerly enslaved. She became one of the first Black women following emancipation to earn a bachelor’s degree in the U.S.   — and then master’s degree — studying classics at Oberlin College before becoming a Latin teacher in Washington, DC.

As an activist and organizer, Terrell would go on to mobilize anti-lynching campaigns alongside Ida B. Wells; advocate for suffrage in a movement that sought to exclude Black women; and challenge injustices such as the Brownsville Affair and convict leasing.

She wrote and lectured widely throughout her life about the intersectionality of race and gender amid the disenfranchisement of Jim Crow. At the age of 90, Terrell was still organizing against racial discrimination, and died just months after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision legally ended racial segregation in public schools.

Exploring her tragedy and triumph 

Dr. Shelley Haley, Edward North Chair of Classics and professor of Africana Studies at Hamilton College, explored Terrell and the complicated dimensions of her activism — which was inflected by colorism and class issues — during her keynote address, “Tragedy and Triumph: the Personal Cost of Racial Injustice and Social Justice Activism in the Life of Mary Church Terrell.”

Dr. Shelley Haley.

Dr. Haley received her PhD in Classics from the University of Michigan in 1977, and is the first Black woman president of the Society for Classical Studies.

Like Terrell, Dr. Haley has dedicated her life to the teaching of Classics and social justice for Black women.

She also fondly recalls passing love notes to her now-husband in the Hatcher Graduate Library Reference Reading Room.

To learn more about Dr. Shelley Haley's own career in Classics, see her two-part “Women in Classics” conversation, from the Society for Classical Studies.

Take a deeper dive  

For further exploration into themes from Dr. Haley’s talk, the library's Digital Scholarship Specialist Caitlin Pollock recommends:

Most readings are available as full text online.

You can also explore Terrell’s digitized papers at the Library of Congress.

Explore historical recipes

To help celebrate Douglass Day, these historical desserts and baked goods recipes by Black chefs were gathered from the library's Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive within our Special Collections Research Center.

Let us know if you try them out!

by Emily Buckler

Mary Church Terrell (center), with Frederick Douglass (left) and members of the National Association of Colored Women in 1933. Credit: Wikimedia Commons and the Library of Congress. Illustration by Kirsten Neelands. 


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