Mary Church Terrell


Mary Church Terrell (1863 – 1954) was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree, and became known as a national activist for civil rights and suffrage; in 1909 she was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She taught and was a principal at an academic high school in Washington, DC; in 1896 she was the first African-American woman in the United States to be appointed to a school board of a major city, serving in the District of Columbia until 1906. Terrell led several important associations, including the National Association of Colored Women.

Mary Church’s father, Robert Reed Church and mother Louisa Ayers, both former slaves of mixed race. Robert Church’s mother was daughter of a Malagasy mother and white planter father; and his father was Captain Charles B. Church, a steamship owner and operator from Virginia. His father allowed Church to keep wages earned as a steward on his ship; the younger man bought his first property in Memphis in 1862. He continued to invest in real estate, especially after the city was depopulated following the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, and developed his wealth in real estate as the city recovered. Multiple sources refer to Church as the first black millionaire in the South, although it is now generally accepted that his wealth reached only $700,000.

Mary majored in Classics at Oberlin College, which accepted all races and genders, she was among mostly white male students. As a freshman she was nominated as class poet, and was elected to two of the college’s literary societies. She also served as an editor of The Oberlin Review. When she earned her bachelor’s degree in 1884, she was one of the first African-American women to do so. Church also earned a master’s degree from Oberlin in 1888.


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