On July 21, 1896, Mary Church Terrell founded the National Association of Colored Women along with other notable black female leaders including Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells-Burnett. With the inspirational motto of “Lifting as We Climb,” the NACW – later known as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) – became the most prominent black women’s suffrage organization. The epitome of black excellence at a time when Jim Crow laws stultified most black progress, Terrell rightfully became the first national president of the NACW.
Born on September 23, 1863, Terrell was the daughter of freed slaves who emerged as prominent members of Memphis, Tenn.’s black elite after the Civil War. Her father, a successful real estate investor, and her mother, one of the first black women to establish her own hair salon, stressed the importance of education to their four children. Terrell followed her parents’ advice. In 1884, she became one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree when she earned a B.A. from Oberlin College. Four years later, she received a master’s degree from the same institution. While at Oberlin, she began writing about the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement. Frederick Douglass became a close friend and the two worked on several civil rights campaigns together.
After college, Terrell began working as a teacher at the first African-American public school in the nation, the M School in Washington D.C. That is where she met her future husband, Robert Heberton Terrell. When she got married in 1891, she briefly contemplated retiring from activism to focus on her family. However, Douglass insisted that her leadership in the civil rights movement was too important for her to just walk away.
Terrell put most of her energy into the black women’s suffrage movement until the 19th amendment was passed in 1920. She believed that if black women could vote, then the nation would be one step closer to ending racial discrimination. With this goal in mind, she led the National Association of Colored Women as president from 1896 to 1909. Then, in 1909, she became one of the two female founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Once women’s suffrage was achieved in 1920, Terrell decided that she had to devote all of her efforts to the broader civil rights movement. Despite the passage of the 19th amendment, African-Americans were still unable to exercise their right to vote because of Jim Crow laws and the domestic terrorism of the KKK.
Terrell never tired in her mission of lifting others as she climbed. Even in her eighties, she was out on the streets participating in picket lines, boycotts and protests against segregation in Washington, D.C. The campaign resulted in the desegregation of all public places in Washington, D.C. in 1953.
On May 7, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that public school segregation was unconstitutional. Two months after the Brown decision, Terrell passed away on July 24, 1954, at 90 years old. Born at a time when slavery and segregation was the law of the land, she helped bring the nation closer to achieving liberty and justice for all.