TERRELL, MARY CHURCH Educator, linguist, women's rights activist, civic leader and crusader for black civil rights, Mary Church Terrell was one of the most versatile and respected black women in the United States during the twentieth century. Born Mary Eliza Church in Memphis, Tennessee in 1863, she was one of the first African American women to earn a college degree, graduating from Oberlin College in 1884. For two years she taught at Wilberforce College in Ohio and, in 1887, she accepted a teaching appointment in Latin at Dunbar High School in Washington, D. C. It was here that she met and subsequently married one of her colleagues, Robert H. Terrell, an alumnus of Harvard University.
Mrs. Terrell was appointed to the Board of Education of Washington, D. C. in 1895. Being the first black woman on an American school board, she held this position between 1895-1900 and, later, between 1906-11. One of the founders and charter members of the National Association of Colored Women, Terrell served as its first president. In addition, she was a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Her civil rights activities spanned the next forty-four years and were culminated when, at the age of eighty-nine, she headed a committee of Washington citizens that was directly responsible for the agitation and litigation which resulted in the 1953 Supreme Court decision ending segregation in public accommodations in Washington.
Well-read and traveled, Terrell was fluent in French, German and Italian, as well as having more than a working knowledge of Latin. Aside from these skills, she was also a gifted writer, having contributed many articles on civil rights and women's rights to newspapers and periodicals. Her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, was published in 1940. Having been born in the year the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, it was fitting that Mary Church Terrell lived to witness the historic Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education on May 17, 1954. She died two months later in Annapolis, Maryland.