We hope you enjoy our #VRABlackHistory Series 2024

From the Transformative Justice Coalition and the Voting Rights Alliance

Please note, if you’d like to opt out from only the upcoming daily Black History Month Voting Rights Alliance #VRABlackHistory series, please email carnwine@tjcoalition.org. Unsubscribing at the bottom of this email unsubscribes you to all Transformers, not just from this special February Series.


Tomorrow’s (February 14th) NEW #VRABlackHistory article will be Harriet Tubman, The publication of this article has been delayed by a day so we can accurately spotlight her. We look forward to sharing it with you at 8:00 AM Eastern Time!

Mary Eliza Church Terrell (1863-1954)
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The Transformative Justice Coalition and the Voting Rights Alliance, in honor of Black History Month, are reviving the daily special series devoted to sharing the legacies and stories of the sheroes, heroes, and events in the fight for Black suffrage. This series was created in 2017 and will add 9 NEW articles this year. In addition to these daily newsletters all February long, this series also incorporates daily social media posts; an interactive calendar; and, website blog posts to spread the word broadly.

We encourage everyone to share this series to your networks and on social media under the hashtag #VRABlackHistory. You can also tweet us @TJC_DC to share your own facts.

Others can sign up for the daily articles or view more Black History articles at VotingRightsAlliance.org

Reporting by: Caitlyn Arnwine (formerly Caitlyn Cobb) This article was written in 2017 and updated in 2018.. All the sources are linked throughout the article in green.


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Today, February 13th, 2024, we want to show why we love and honor Mary Eliza Church Terrell. On September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee, this pioneering woman was born. She was born the same year the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, and she died two months after the Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education.


Mary was born to former mix-raced slaves Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers who used their newfound freedom to become small business-owners and made themselves vital members of Memphis’ growing Black population. Because of their ambition, Mary’s parents were prosperous and Mary was able to take advantage of many opportunities not available to most Black people during that time. Her parents instilled in her and her brother the value of education. And her parents’ ambition and love of education penetrated Mary to her core, and became a vital aspect of her personality, and she would go on to keep fighting for civil rights even when she was 90 years old. Mary was not just a voting rights hero; but, was also a writer, educator, and all-around civil rights activist.

The First to pave the way…

Mary’s mother owned a hair salon and Mary’s father “was the first black millionaire in the South due to his business and real estate dealings.” Because of the opportunities her parents were able to provide and the drive that she had, Mary was able to not only attend Oberlin College (Ohio), but she was able become one of the first African American women awarded a degree, obtaining her Bachelor’s in Classics in 1884. Four years after that, Mary was able to earn her Master’s degree in education (1888). After studying at Oberlin College, Mary continued her love of education and studied in France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy for two years, becoming fluent in French, German, and Italian. You can view Mary’s diary during her time in Europe from 1888-1890, which is written in French and German HERE.

Not only was Mary a great student; but she also sought to educate her community. When she returned to the United States, Mary taught languages at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, a Black college. In 1887, when she moved to Washington, D.C. Mary also became a teacher and principal of M Street Colored High School. “The law stated that married women weren’t allowed to work as educators, so when she married Robert Heberton Terrell, who was D.C.’s first African American municipal judge, in 1891 she resigned from her job.” 

When one door closes….

It was not long after resigning from her job on the Washington Board of Education that Mary took her rightful place in the civil rights and suffragette movements. One can only wonder if one of the reasons she was motivated to take up the woman’s right’s mantle was because of the sexist law that made her quit her job as an educator simply because of her gender and marriage status. In 1891, Mary became an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), arguing that the voting rights of Black women were just as important as White voting rights. Mary’s main focus was voting rights, as she recognized and said that she “belonged ‘to the only group in this country that has two obstacles to surmount, both sex and race.’” Mary often highlighted the struggles that Black women had to go through that White woman didn’t. The suffrage movement often tried to separate or exclude Black women. There wasn’t just racism coming from White women; but also racism and sexism coming from men too.

Through a series of events, in 1896 two organizations- the National Federation of Afro-American Women (which Mary formed) and the National League of Colored Women- merged to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), ”which was the first national Black organization in the United Sates, and has proved to be one of the longest lasting.” In twenty years, the NACW “had fifty thousand members in twenty-eight federations and over a thousand clubs. By 1924 it had reached 100,000 members.” And guess who was at the center of yet another historic event? Our shero, Mary Church Terrell! Mary founded the NACW and became its first president from 1896-1901. During this time Mary “was [also] the first African American woman to be appointed to a school board. She participated on Washington’s Board of Education from 1895 to 1901 and then again from 1906 to 1911.

As the NACW President, Mary joined the stage of the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Washington, D.C.,  delivering her riveting 1898 speech “The Progress of Colored Women”. This speech tied together the struggles of the White Woman’s fight for the vote with the Black Woman’s; yet, at the same time, Mary distinguished between the disadvantages that Black woman face, and highlights the White Woman’s privilege, often not sugar-coating the brutality that women faced while enslaved. She ended the speech in a way best told by her own words:

      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. With courage, born of success achieved in the past, with a keen sense of the responsibility which we shall continue to assume, we look forward to a future large with promise and hope. Seeking no favors because of our color, nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice, asking an equal chance.”

To learn more about the crucial intersectionality of the Women’s Suffrage movement and unique challenges facing African American woman, watch the videos below:
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Other Fun Facts

  • The reason historically cited as to why Mary re-entered the civil rights public life is because in 1892 her close friend, Thomas Moss, in Memphis was lynched. Mary was already good friends with Frederick Douglass through her father, and together, her and Douglass met with President Harrison to urge his condemnation of racial violence; [however,] the president made no public statement on the issue.”
  • At 90 years old, Mary attended the hearings of Brown v. Board of Education.
  • In 1904, she was the only black woman invited to speak at the Berlin International Congress of Women and gave her speech in German, French and English.
  • In 1909, she became a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and later also helped organize the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
  • Terrell lent her support to several political causes. An enthusiastic member of the Republican Party, she worked as president of the Women’s Republican League in Washington, D.C. She also accepted an appointment from the Republican Party to direct a program for Black women in the eastern United States. At the same time, Terrell served on Washington’s Board of Education in an unpaid position from 1895 to 1901, and again from 1906 to 1911. In 1909, Terrell signed the charter that established the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP).
  • After the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, Mary continued her activism, and fought to desegregate Washington D.C. restaurants, a fight which Mary would eventually win.
  • Today, Mary Church Terrell’s home in Washington, D.C., has been named a National Historic Landmark.
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