Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell

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Mary Church was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on 23rd September, 1863. Both her parents, Robert Church and Louisa Ayers, were both former slaves. Robert was the son of his white master, Charles Church.

During the Memphis race riots in 1866 Mary's father was shot in the head and left for dead. He survived the attack and eventually became a successful businessman. He speculated in the property market and was considered to be the wealthiest black man in the South.

Mary was an outstanding student and after graduating from Oberlin College, Ohio, in 1884, she taught at a black secondary school in Washington and at Wilberforce College in Ohio. Through her father, Mary met Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. She was especially close to Douglass and worked with him on several civil rights campaigns.

After a two year travelling and studying in France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and England (1888-1890), Mary returned to the United States where she married Robert Heberton Terrell, a lawyer who was later to become the first black municipal court judge in Washington.

In 1892 Church's friend, Tom Moss, a grocer from Memphis, was lynched by a white mob. Church and Frederick Douglass had a meeting with Benjamin Harrison concerning this case but the president was unwilling to make a public statement condemning lynching.

Church was an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association and was particularly concerned about ensuring the organization continued to fight for black women getting the vote. With Josephine Ruffin she formed the Federation of Afro-American Women and in 1896 she became the first president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women.

In 1904 Church was invited to speak at the Berlin International Congress of Women. She was the only black woman at the conference and determined to make a good impression she created a sensation when she gave her speech in German, French and English.

During the First World War Church and her daughter, Phillis Terrell joined Alice Paul and Lucy Burns of the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage (CUWS) in picketing the White House. She was particularly upset when in one demonstration outside of the White House, leaders of the party asked the black suffragist, Ida Wells-Barnett, not to march with other members. It was feared that identification with black civil rights would lose the support of white women in the South. Despite pressure from people like Mary White Ovington, leaders of the CUWS refused to publicly state that she endorsed black female suffrage.

In 1909 Church joined with Mary White Ovington to form the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). The first meeting of the NAACP was held on 12th February, 1909. Early members included Josephine Ruffin, Jane Addams, Inez Milholland, William Du Bois, Charles Darrow, Charles Edward Russell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, and Ida Wells-Barnett.

Church wrote several books including her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World (1940). In the early 1950s she was involved in the struggle against segregation in public eating places in Washington. Mary Church Terrell died in Annapolis on 24th July, 1954.

The elective franchise is withheld from one half of its citizens, many of whom are intelligent, cultured, and virtuous, while it is unstintingly bestowed upon the other, some of whom are illiterate, debauched and vicious, because the word "people", by an unparalleled exhibition of lexicographical acrobatics, has been turned and twisted to mean all who were shrewd and wise enough to have themselves born boys instead of girls, or who took the trouble to be born white instead of black.

Mary Church Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1863 - the same year that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Both of her parents were formerly enslaved people who became successful in business: her mother, Louisa, owned a successful hair salon, and her father, Robert, became one of the first Black American millionaires in the South. The family lived in a mostly-White neighborhood and young Mary's father was shot when she was three during the Memphis race riots of 1866. He survived. It was not until she was five, hearing stories from her grandmother about slavery, that she began to be conscious of Black American history.

Her parents divorced in 1869 or 1870, and her mother first had custody of both Mary and her brother. In 1873, the family sent her north to Yellow Springs and then Oberlin for school. Terrell split her summers between visiting her father in Memphis and her mother where she had moved to, New York City. Terrell graduated from Oberlin College, Ohio, one of the few integrated colleges in the country, in 1884, where she had taken the "gentleman's course" rather than the easier, shorter women's program. Two of her fellow students, Anna Julia Cooper and Ida Gibbs Hunt, would become her lifelong friends, colleagues, and allies in the movement for racial and gender equality.

Mary moved back to Memphis to live with her father. He had become wealthy, in part by buying up properties cheaply when people fled the yellow fever epidemic in 1878-1879. Her father opposed her working, but Mary accepted a teaching position in Xenia, Ohio, anyway, and then another in Washington, DC. After completing her master's degree at Oberlin while living in Washington, she spent two years traveling in Europe with her father. In 1890, she returned to teach at a high school for Black students in Washington, D.C.

19th Amendment at 100: Mary Church Terrell

The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, but this landmark event was neither the beginning nor the end of the story for women and their struggle for the right to vote. Join us in 2020 as we commemorate this centennial year with 12 stories from our holdings for you to save, print, or share. February’s featured image is of activist Mary Church Terrell.

“Seeking no favors because of our color nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice and ask for an equal chance.” —Mary Church Terrell

Although activist Mary Church Terrell was perhaps most well known for her fight against racial segregation, she was also an outspoken advocate for woman suffrage.

Born Mary Church in Memphis, TN, during the U.S. Civil War to well-off parents, Terrell became one of the first African American women to earn not only a bachelor’s but also a master’s degree. As part of the black upper class, Terrell used her social position to champion racial and gender equality.

Terrell moved to Washington, DC, in 1887 to teach. After two years touring Europe from 1888 to 1890, she returned to the nation’s capital, where she lived until her death in 1954. After marrying Robert Terrell in 1891, Mary Church Terrell was forced to quit her job because of laws prohibiting married women from teaching.

In 1892, Terrell helped form the Colored Women’s League in Washington, DC. Women’s clubs were an important way for African American women to improve the health, education, and welfare of their communities. In 1896, more than 100 black women’s clubs joined together to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Terrell was a founding member and served as its president from 1896 to 1901. During her presidency, Terrell began to get involved in the woman suffrage movement.

Terrell argued that the vote was even more essential to African American women because they were disadvantaged by both their race and their sex, and the vote would be key to achieving civil rights. The NACW’s motto was “Lifting as we Climb”—the idea being that by elevating their status as community leaders, they could elevate all black women.

As with American society as a whole, the woman suffrage movement was segregated, and black women were not always welcomed at white women suffrage events. After befriending Susan B. Anthony, Terrell spoke at National American Woman Suffrage Association meetings, offering her perspective as a black woman.

During the lead-up to the passage of the 19th Amendment, Terrell was part of perhaps the two most well known events. The first was the 1913 woman suffrage parade in Washington, DC. Despite attempts to segregate African American women, some black women refused to be separated and marched according to their state and occupation. Terrell marched alongside the sisters of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, which had been recently founded at Howard University.

The second event was in 1917, when on multiple occasions Terrell and her daughter, Phyllis, picketed at the White House with members of the National Woman’s Party. Terrell, however, was absent the day several women were arrested and sent to Occoquan jail.

Even though the 19th Amendment was supposed to give all women the right to vote, many black women—and men—were still barred from voting by discriminatory state laws. Terrell spent the rest of her life advocating for both women’s and African American’s rights and ending segregation in Washington, DC. She died just months after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education ending racial segregation in schools.

Learn more about the contributions that African American women made to the struggle for suffrage and civil rights in our exhibit Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote and the traveling exhibit One Half the People.

This Day in History: How Mary Terrell ended racial segregation by Washington DC's restaurants in 1953

Mary Church Terrell (Wikimedia Commons)

The death of George Floyd, a man who pleaded "I can't breathe" as a police officer knelt on his neck until he died, has shaken the world and inspired protests against police brutality and racial discrimination. The incident thrust the Black Lives Matter movement back into focus as protestors took to the streets and celebrities gave it their voice. Social media is abuzz as netizens dig up older instances of racial segregation – a stark reminder of the discrimination and xenophobia that has been rampant in the country, despite the dissolution of all discriminatory laws against people of color.

It is no secret that America's history is blemished by a 150 year-long tradition of racial segregation. People were divided on the basis of the color of their skin and forced to abide by the rules allocated to each race. The segregation came into play soon after the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th Amendment, which aimed at abolishing slavery. Most states adopted "Black Codes" that were meant to be laws that were reformed to benefit the former slaves and emancipate African-Americans. Despite these efforts, the struggle to achieve equality and guarantee the civil rights of all Americans brought no gains. The movement of the African-American community was restricted and they were forced to work in a labor-intensive economy with very low wages and debt. The Black Codes became a leeway for newer laws that advocated for white supremacy and came to be known as "Jim Crow".

Portrait of Civil War 'contrabands,' fugitive slaves who were emancipated upon reaching the North, sitting outside a house, possible in Freedman's Village in Arlington, Virginia, mid-1860s. Up to 1100 former slaves at a time were housed in the government established Freedman's Village in the thirty years in which it served as a temporary shelter for runaway and liberated slaves. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This series of rigid, anti-black laws became a way of life. The Jim Crow was applied to every aspect of society, and especially public places where one would go for leisure. Racism was at its peak and African-Americans were not allowed to dine at restaurants. While getting a take out, they weren't allowed to be in the restaurant at the same time as a white patron. But history is peppered with poignant references that tell you, "all it takes is one person to lead the change" – and in January 1950, it was Mary Church Terrell, one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree in the US.

As the former president of the National Association of Coloured Women and a charter member for the National Association for Advancement of Coloured People, Terrell had already spent the last 40 years of her career advocating for equal rights. So, when she attended a late Friday lunch with her group of "integrated friends" in downtown Washington, she was bound to raise eyebrows. Terrell, who was 86 at the time, entered Thomspons's Restaurant and began selecting entrees with her friends, only one of whom was white. The restaurant manager got word of "colored patrons" dining-in and informed them that Thompson's stuck to the Jim Crow. As soon as they had heard that, the group including Terrell, immediately left.

Mary Church Terrell (Wikimedia Commons)

At the time, not many knew that the incident was actually a well-executed plan, aimed at segregation in the nation's capital city of Washington, DC. As the leader of Washington's civil rights movement for well over 50 years, Terrell was aware of the segregation laws and Thompson's policy of not serving African-Americans. Yet, she went there, not with the intention of being served, rather being rejected and if necessary, degraded. She was adamant on bringing about change and the group had been focused on changing regressive laws that had existed for the last 75 years. Since the end of the Civil War, the racial tensions in the country had been at an all-time high, and with a new government every four years or so, societal and segregation laws seemed to fluctuate between being barred and re-implemented.

A black little girl leaves a cafe through a door marked 'For Colored,' circa 1950. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The laws of integration or "lost laws", as they were called at the time, hadn't resurfaced until 1948 when the Truman administration published a critical analysis titled 'Segregation in Washington', put together by 100 national figures including the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Helen Hayes. Shortly after this report was released, Terrell and several other activists formed the Co-ordination Committee for the Enforcement of DC Anti-Discrimination Laws to further their movement. However, it was the incident that unfolded at Thompson restaurant that gave them a solid footing to present a case before court.

Without wasting time, Terrell asked for authorities to prosecute the restaurant for violation of prior injunctions. However, the accused denied the claims put forward by Terrell and her group. The District Commissioners needed to assess the claims thoroughly for legitimacy before coming to a decision worthy of prosecution and announced that the lost laws would still be practiced and that they would review the next restaurant discrimination case that came to them.

Thousands of Americans march near the US Capitol on August 28, 1963 at a civil rights rally (Getty Images)

Without losing hope, Terrell and her friends set out to re-enact the incident from January. A month later, they were not disappointed since the African-Americans in their group were refused service at Thompson's restaurant, again. Terrell immediately notified city officials and the District filed a lawsuit against the restaurant. After a long and tedious battle, the case titled District of Columbia vs. John R. Thompson Co concluded on June 8, 1953, when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in the city's favor. The lost laws were back and restaurants were enforced to open their doors to everyone, regardless of race and color. Segregated eating facilities were deemed unconstitutional – a groundbreaking milestone in the Civil Rights movement.

While it was a big victory for the African-American community in Washington, DC, it wasn't until the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Right Act that racial segregation and discrimination became illegal. Despite these efforts, the struggle to achieve complete equality and guarantee the civil rights of all Americans would continue well into the 21st century.

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Mary circa 1925ish (the photo isn’t dated) Library of Congress

When we last left Mary Church Terrell, it was 1898, she was 34 years old, standing on a stage and receiving thunderous applause after having given a speech entitled, The Progress of Colored Women to an audience at the National American Women Sufferage Association. (You can read her speech here, at

She was also seven months pregnant! Mary had three miscarriages in the first five years of marriage, but this time she gave birth to a healthy daughter! Mary and Robert named her Phyllis (after Phillis Wheatley, Episode 119) later, the daughter of Mary’s brother would come to live with them, too, rounding out their family.

Judge Robert Terrell circa 1910 wikicommons

While being a mom (and often with Phyllis by her side) Mary continued writing and speaking around the world about the treatment of people of color, many formerly enslaved, and especially those who lived in the southern United States where laws were oppressive and racial tensions were high. She spoke about the rights of women to vote, the cruelty of lynching, and against Jim Crow laws she spoke about the entire experience of African-Americans in the United States and how their lives could improve when there was racial equality. But she wasn’t just words, she actively helped establish educational and training programs to help black communities.

Inez Milholland leading the 1913 Suffragists Parade Washington, D.C. Library of Congress.

The same parade on Pennsylvania Avenue, this is the crowd the parade went past and through! Library of Congress

As she got older, Mary’s activist methods altered. She had believed that the most effective way to create change was to change people–educate them, give them skills…and work within the established system. But around the time that she became a charter member of the NAACP in 1909, she shifted tactics and began to work to change the system itself. She protested outside the White House for women’s suffrage and, when the 19th Amendment was passed, she worked to stop voter suppression laws that were keeping impoverished people and people of color, from the polls.

When Robert died in 1925, Mary was a 62-year-old widow who still had big projects in her. In 1950 she was refused service at Thompson’s Restaurant in Washington, DC. It was company policy and besides, a lot of restaurants were segregated, it was the norm. What wasn’t the norm was what Mary and her friends did next: they sued Thompson’s. While that case was working its way through the legal system, she joined boycotts of other restaurants that held the same segregation policies until they changed their MO and became integrated.

Mary’s house on T Street in Washington. It’s in dire need of refurbishing, but it’s also on the National Register of Historic Places and owned by Howard University who have plans to do just that.

In 1953, Mary’s case, District of Columbia v. John R Thompson legally, with the backing of the Supreme Court, desegregated restaurants in Washington and led to the same across the country. A year later, another Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education legally desegregated schools. There was, and still is, a lot of work to be done on the causes of racial and gender equality that Mary fought for, but Mary’s activist days ended two months after the Brown v. Board of Education verdict when she died on July 24, 1954, just shy of her 91st birthday.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer(1818-1894)

By Arlisha R. Norwood, NWHM Fellow | 2017

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was an early suffragist, editor, and social activist. Bloomer was also a fashion advocate who worked to change women’s clothing styles.

Bloomer was born in Homer, New York. With only a few years of formal education, she started working as a teacher, educating students in her community. In 1840, she married David Bloomer and moved to Seneca Falls, New York. Bloomer quickly became active in the Seneca Falls political and social community. She joined a church and volunteered with the local temperance society. Noticing his wife’s fervor for social reform, David encouraged her to use writing as an outlet. As a result, she started a column which covered a plethora of topics.

In 1848, Bloomer went to the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention. The next year she created The Lily, a newspaper solely dedicated to women. At first, the newspaper only addressed the temperance movement, however due to demand the bi-weekly paper expanded to cover other news. After meeting activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Bloomer started to publish articles about the women’s rights movement. In 1849, Bloomer’s husband was elected Postmaster for Seneca Falls. He immediately appointed his wife as his assistant. Bloomer used her office as makeshift headquarters for the Seneca Fall’s women’s rights movement.

Bloomer’s most influential work was in dress reform. After noticing the health hazards and restrictive nature of corsets and dresses, Bloomer pushed for women to adopt a new style of dress. The pantaloons, now called Bloomers, not only illustrated a departure from the accepted dress for women, the garments also came to represent activists in the women’s rights movement. The style of dress attracted much ridicule from conservative men and women.

In 1851, Bloomer introduced Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Susan B. Anthony. The meeting set in motion a long-standing partnership between the two activists. In 1853, Bloomer and her husband moved West. While traveling she stopped in many towns and lectured about temperance. She attempted to keep The Lily going, however her move made publishing the paper harder. In 1854, Bloomer decided to sell the paper. Eventually, the couple settled in Council Bluff, Iowa. There, she called on women to become property owners. During the Civil War, Bloomer started the Soldier’s Aid Society of Council Bluffs to help Union soldiers.

Until her death, Bloomer preached on temperance and women’s rights. She served as the President of the Iowa Suffrage Association from 1871-1873. However, because of her relentless dedication to temperance, she often found her ideas at odds with other activists who wanted to focus on other topics in the women’s rights movement. Nonetheless, she never abandoned her commitment to the movement’s agenda. Bloomer passed away at the age of 76 in 1894.

An Activist&aposs Life

Terrell was not someone who sat on the sidelines. In her new life in Washington, D.C., where she and Robert settled after they married, she became especially involved in the women&aposs rights movement. In particular, she focused much of her attention on securing the right to vote. But within the movement she found reluctance to include African American women, if not outright exclusion of them from the cause.

Terrell worked to change that. She spoke out frequently about the issue and with some fellow activists founded the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. She was immediately named the organization&aposs first president, a position she used to advance social and educational reforms.

Other distinctions also came her way. Pushed by W.E.B. Du Bois, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People made Terrell a charter member. Later, she became the first African American woman ever appointed to a school board and then served on a committee that investigated alleged police mistreatment of African Americans.

(1898) Mary Church Terrell, “The Progress of Colored Women”

Mary Church Terrell, the daughter of former slaves, became by the beginning of the 20th century one of the most articulate spokespersons for women’s rights including full suffrage. In 1896 she was elected president of the National Association of Colored Women and by 1910 she was a charter member of the newly formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In the 1898 address below to the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association meeting celebrating the organization’s 15th anniversary in Washington D.C., she describes the specific challenges facing African American women and argues that education and religious faith are the safeguards against discrimination.

WHEN ONE CONSIDERS the obstacles encountered by colored women in their effort to educate and cultivate themselves, since they became free, the work they have accomplished and the progress they have made will bear favorable comparison, at least with that of their more fortunate sisters, from whom the opportunity of acquiring knowledge and the means of self-culture have never been entirely withheld. Not only are colored women with ambition and aspiration handicapped on account of their sex, but they are almost everywhere baffled and mocked because of their race. Not only because they are women, but because they are colored women, are discouragement and disappointment meeting them at every turn. But in spite of the obstacles encountered, the progress made by colored women along many lines appears like a veritable miracle of modern times. Forty years ago for the great masses of colored women, there was no such thing as home. Today in each and every section of the country there are hundreds of homes among colored people, the mental and moral tone of which is as high and as pure as can be found among the best people of any land.

To the women of the race may be attributed in large measure the refinement and purity of the colored home. The immorality of colored women is a theme upon which those who know little about them or those who maliciously misrepresent them love to descant. Foul aspersions upon the character of colored women are assiduously circulated by the press of certain sections and especially by the direct descendants of those who in years past were responsible for the moral degradation of their female slaves. And yet, in spite of the fateful heritage of slavery, even though the safeguards usually thrown around maidenly youth and innocence are in some sections entirely withheld from colored girls, statistics compiled by men not inclined to falsify in favor of my race show that immorality among the colored women of the United States is not so great as among women with similar environment and temptations in Italy, Germany, Sweden and France.

Scandals in the best colored society are exceedingly rare, while the progressive game of divorce and remarriage is practically unknown.

The intellectual progress of colored women has been marvelous. So great has been their thirst for knowledge and so Herculean their efforts to acquire it that there are few colleges, universities, high and normal schools in the North, East and West from which colored girls have not graduated with honor. In Wellesley, Vassar, Ann Arbor, Cornell and in Oberlin, my dear alma mater, whose name will always be loved and whose praise will always be sung as the first college in the country broad, just and generous enough to extend a cordial welcome to the Negro and to open its doors to women on an equal footing with the men, colored girls by their splendid records have forever settled the question of their capacity and worth. The instructors in these and other institutions cheerfully bear testimony to their intelligence, their diligence and their success.

As the brains of colored women expanded, their hearts began to grow. No Sooner had the heads of a favored few been filled with knowledge than their hearts yearned to dispense blessings to the less fortunate of their race. With tireless energy and eager zeal, colored women have worked in every conceivable way to elevate their race. Of the colored teachers engaged in instructing our youth it is probably no exaggeration to say that fully eighty percent are women. In the backwoods, remote from the civilization and comforts of the city and town, colored women may be found courageously battling with those evils which such conditions always entail. Many a heroine of whom the world will never hear has thus sacrificed her life to her race amid surroundings and in the face of privations which only martyrs can bear.

Through the medium of their societies in the church, beneficial organizations out of it and clubs of various kinds, colored women are doing a vast amount of good. It is almost impossible to ascertain exactly what the Negro is doing in any field, for the records are so poorly kept. This is particularly true in the case of the women of the race. During the past forty years there is no doubt that colored women in their poverty have contributed large sums of money to charitable and educational institutions as well as to the foreign and home missionary work. Within the twenty-five years in which the educational work of the African Methodist Episcopal Church has been systematized, the women of that organization have contributed at least five hundred thousand dollars to the cause of education. Dotted all over the country are charitable institutions for the aged, orphaned and poor which have been established by colored women. Just how many it is difficult to state, owing to the lack of statistics bearing on the progress, possessions and prowess of colored women.

Up to date, politics have been religiously eschewed by colored women, although questions affecting our legal status as a race are sometimes agitated by the most progressive class. In Louisiana and Tennessee colored women have several times petitioned the legislatures of their respective states to repel the obnoxious Jim-Crow laws. Against the convict-lease system, whose atrocities have been so frequently exposed of late, colored women here and there in the South are waging a ceaseless war. So long as hundreds of their brothers and sisters, many of whom have committed no crime or misdemeanor whatever, are thrown into cells whose cubic contents are less than those of a good size grave, to be overworked, underfed and only partially covered with vermin infested rags, and so long as children are born to the women in these camps who breathe the polluted atmosphere of these dens of horror and vice from the time they utter their first cry in the world till they are released from their suffering by death, colored women who are working for the emancipation and elevation of their race know where their duty lies. By constant agitation of this painful and hideous subject, they hope to touch the conscience of the country, so that this stain upon its escutcheon shall be forever wiped away.

Alarmed at the rapidity with which the Negro is losing ground in the world of trade, some of the farsighted women are trying to solve the labor question, so far as it concerns the women at least, by urging the establishment of schools of domestic science wherever means therefore can be secured. Those who are interested in this particular work hope and believe that if colored women and girls are thoroughly trained in domestic service, the boycott which has undoubtedly been placed upon them in many sections of the country will be removed. With so few vocations open to the Negro and with the labor organizations increasingly hostile to him, the future of the boys and girls of the race appears to some of our women very foreboding and dark.

The cause of temperance has been eloquently espoused by two women, each of whom has been appointed national superintendent of work among colored people by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In business, colored women have had signal success. There is in Alabama a large milling and cotton business belonging to and controlled by a colored woman, who has sometimes as many as seventy-five men in her employ. Until a few years ago the principal ice plant of Nova Scotia was owned and managed by a colored woman, who sold it for a large amount. In the professions there are dentists and doctors whose practice is lucrative and large. Ever since a book was published in 1773 entitled “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant of Mr. John Wheatley,” of Boston, colored women have given abundant evidence of literary ability. In sculpture we were represented by a woman upon whose chisel Italy has set her seal of approval in painting by one of Bouguereau’s pupils and in music by young women holding diplomas from the best conservatories in the land. In short, to use a thought of the illustrious Frederick Douglass, if judged by the depths from which they have come, rather than by the heights to which those blessed with centuries of opportunities have attained, colored women need not hang their heads in shame. They are slowly but surely making their way up to the heights, wherever they can be scaled. In spite of handicaps and discouragements they are not losing heart. In a variety of ways they are rendering valiant service to their race. Lifting as they climb, onward and upward they go struggling and striving and hoping that the buds and blossoms of their desires may burst into glorious fruition ere long. Seeking no favors because of their color nor charity because of their needs they knock at the door of Justice and ask for an equal chance.

How One Woman Helped End Lunch Counter Segregation in the Nation’s Capital

Thompson’s restaurant once served up fast, cheap meals—everything from smoked boiled tongue to cold salmon sandwiches. Today, there’s nothing in downtown D.C. to show that the popular restaurant chain even had a location at 725 14th Street Northwest in the 1950s. The space is now filled by a CVS drug store. Across the street, there’s an upscale barbershop, and on the corner at the intersection of 14th and New York Avenue, a Starbucks is currently under construction.

The establishment's quiet fade into history parallels the little-remembered Supreme Court case that began there 63 years ago this week that forced an end to lunch counter segregation in Washington one year before Plessy v. Ferguson was repealed.

On February 28, 1950, 86-year-old Mary Church Terrell invited her friends Reverend Arthur F. Elmes, Essie Thompson and David Scull to lunch with her at Thompson’s. Only Scull was white, and when the four entered the establishment, took their trays and proceeded down the counter line, the manager told the group that Thompson’s policy forbid him from serving them. They demanded to know why they couldn't have lunch in the cafeteria, and the manager responded that it was not his personal policy, but Thompson Co.’s, which refused to serve African Americans.

The group left without their meals. But the ill-fated lunch date was no accident. As chairwoman of the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the District of Columbia Anti-Discrimination Laws, Terrell was setting up a test case to force the courts to rule on two “lost laws” that demanded all restaurants and public eating places in Washington serve any well-mannered citizen regardless of their skin color. Over three drawn out years, a legal battle followed, which ultimately took their case all the way to America’s highest court.

(Mary Church Terrell oil on vanvas painting by J. Richard Thompson National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution gift of Mrs. Phyllis Langston)

Terrell had made her mark on history long before she turned her attention toward discriminatory dining practices. Born in 1863, the year President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the towering figure in social and educational reform was one of the first African-American women to graduate from college. An Oberlin College alumna, she not only gave a speech titled “The Progress and Problems of Colored Women” at the 1898 Annual Convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association, but also served as a delegate at the International Council of Women in Berlin in 1904. Decades before she took a tray and stood in line to pay at Thompson’s, her fight to end race and gender discrimination led her to become the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), as well as a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

When Terrell first moved to Washington, D.C. in 1889, she began her career as a high school teacher, and soon after became the first African-American woman to be appointed to the D.C. Board of Education. While she stopped working soon after she married a lawyer named Robert Heberton Terrell, she never closed her eyes to the injustices happening around her.

Then again, how could she? In a speech she delivered at the United Women’s Club of Washington, D.C., in 1906, she explained the indignity of being denied the ability to purchase a meal in the capital.

“As a colored woman I may walk from the Capitol to the White House, ravenously hungry and abundantly supplied with money with which to purchase a meal, without finding a single restaurant in which I would be permitted to take a morsel of food, if it was patronized by white people, unless I were willing to sit behind a screen,” she said.

That hadn’t always been the case in the district. During Reconstruction, the D.C. Legislative Assembly—a mix of popularly elected officials and President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration appointees who governed the city—had actually passed two nearly identical laws, in 1872 and 1873, that prohibited restaurants, hotels, barbershops, bathing houses and soda fountains from refusing to sell or serve any “well-behaved” customer, regardless of race or color.

The short-lived assembly was abolished in 1874, and with the start of Jim Crow segregation laws three years later, the rules were disregarded, and then left out of D.C. Code laws. However, the “lost laws,” as the 1872 and 1873 pieces of legislation would become known as, were never repealed. Instead, they remained, mostly forgotten about, until after World War II, when President Harry Truman’s committee issued a 1948 report titled Segregation in Washington , highlighting the extent of injustices that African Americans faced in the nation’s capital. Civil Rights activist Marvin Harold Caplan’s first-hand account of the era includes the comments of Kenesaw Mountain Landis II, one of the authors of the groundbreaking study:

“Some people say that the time is not ripe for colored people to have equal rights as citizens in the Nation’s Capital and that white people are ‘not ready’ to give them such rights. But in 1872. the popularly elected Assembly of the District passed a law giving Negroes equal rights in restaurants, hotels, barber shops and other places of public accommodation. Stiff penalties were provided for violation. As late as 1904 this civil rights law was familiar to a correspondent of the New York Times."

Annie Stein, the chairwoman of the Anti-Discrimination Committee of her local chapter of the Progressive Party, noticed Landis' passage and devoted herself to learn more about this 1872 law. She enlisted the help of her friend, Joseph Forer, a lawyer and chairman of the District Affairs Committee of the D.C. Lawyers Guild, who began researching the law and its validity. Realizing she also needed public support to rally around the cause, she created the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the District of Columbia Anti-Discrimination Laws in 1949, and reached out to Terrell to see if she would become the chairwoman of the committee.

The timing was auspicious. As Joan Quigley, author of a new book on Terrell, Just Another Southern Town, explained in a conversation about the life of the civil rights activist on C-SPAN in March, Stein’s offer came just after Terrell had been denied water at a pharmacy that had served her in the past, and “noticed a hardening of racial attitudes in department stores." The year before, in 1948, a District of Columbia judge had also upheld the right for the local branch of the American Association of University Women (AAUW), a club of college-educated women, to reject Terrell's application for reinstatement based on her skin color, even though the national organization’s only requirement for membership was a college degree.

Terrell, who was finishing up one of her life goals, publishing her 1950 memoir, A Colored Woman In A White World, felt compelled to act. “She basically embraced the tradition of agitation going back to Frederick Douglass,” Quigley said. “She said, it’s my duty to send a message to the country, to the world that we are no longer patient with being pushed around.”

After the national convention of the AAUW used Terrell’s case as a rallying point to vote 2,168 to 65 to reaffirm that all university graduates, regardless of “race, color or creed,” had the right to join the club, Terrell turned her attention toward the Stein's Anti-Discrimination Committee coordinating committee.

As chairwoman, Terrell soon attracted over 1,000 supporters, who “rallied behind the spirited leadership of Mrs. Terrell,” according to Al Sweeney, a journalist for the Washington Afro-American .

The committee made noise by picketinig and boycotting dime store establishments throughout D.C. One of the leaflets they distributed, which asked citizens to “stay out of Hecht’s”, a department store with a basement lunch counter, featured a photograph of Terrell, and quoted the then-88-year-old chairwoman, saying: “I have visited the capitals of many countries, but only in the capital of my own country have I been subjected to this indignity.”

When faced with pressure from the petitioners, some stores desegregated on their own (including Hecht's, which changed its policy in January 1952, after a nine-month boycott and six-month picket line), but the committee came to the conclusion that to integrate the rest, legal action would be necessary.

That brought Terrell to Thompson's. Of all the restaurants that refused to serve African Americans, the committee targeted Thompson’s cafeteria because it was right next to the offices of the lawyers who would be taking the case to court, according to a 1985 Washington Post article.

But that first lunch in late February proved unsuccessful. After Terrell, Elmes, Thompson and Scull took their case to court the municipal court judge dismissed it, under the reasoning that the lost laws were “repealed by implication.” For technical reasons, the committee could not repeal that decision, so instead, they were forced to create another new case.

So, once again, Terrell found herself picking up a tray in Thompson’s in July. She was joined by Elmes and also was accompanied by a woman named Jean Joan Williams. Once again, the manager denied them service based on Terrell and Elmes’ skin color. However, this time, the municipal judge didn’t hold another full trial. That allowed the corporation council of the District of Columbia representing Terrell and company to appeal the decision. From there, the case moved to the Municipal Court of Appeals, which declared the lost laws valid. In a 5-4 decision, the Federal District Court, however, ruled the lost laws invalid. Then, the Supreme Court picked up the case.

The court had yet to overturn the “separate but equal” ruling in Plessy, but Terrell’s case, formally titled District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc. , relied only on jurisdiction in the district, which meant it did not touch Plessy . Due to its narrow scope, the court was able to issue an unanimous 8-0 decision in 1953, historically ending segregation in all Washington, D.C., establishments.

In an interview with Ethel Payne for the New York Age, Terrell said that after the verdict she called up the other defendants and invited them to lunch once more at Thompson’s. “We went and we had a glorious time. I took a tray and got in line and received my food. When I got to the end of the line, a gentleman walked up to me, took my tray and escorted me to a table and asked me, ‘Mrs. Terrell, is there anything else I can do for you?' And who do you think that man was? Why, it was the manager of the Thompson restaurants!”

Never one to stop her advocacy work, Terrell spent her 90th birthday that year testing Washington, D.C.’s segregated theater policy. She and her three guests were all admitted to see The Actress at the Capitol Theater without any trouble. Washington’s movie theater managers, unwilling to have their own Supreme Court case on their hands, had gotten the message. As Dennis and Judith Fradin wrote in Fight On!: Mary Church Terrell’s Battle for Integration, within the next few weeks “virtually all of Washington’s movie houses had opened their doors for everyone.”

Terrell would live to see the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954, which ended racial segregation in public schools. She died just a couple months later on July 24, 1954.

Today, while 14th Street NW bears no physical trace of Thompson’s history or the work of the coordinating committee, the site can be found on D.C.’s African American Heritage Trail, which gives a deserving nod to the location's importance in breaking down discrimination by breaking bread.

Editor's note, March 20, 2019: Due to an error in source material, an earlier version of this story referred to Mary Church Terrell being thought of as the "female Booker T. Washington," when in fact that label was used instead for Nannie Helen Burroughs, another prominent activist in Washington, D.C. The reference has been removed from the story.

About Jackie Mansky

Jacqueline Mansky is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She was previously the assistant web editor, humanities, for Smithsonian magazine.

Additional Digital Collections

African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection

The collection presents a panoramic and eclectic review of African-American history and culture, spanning almost one hundred years from the early nineteenth through the early twentieth centuries, with the bulk of the material published between 1875 and 1900. Among the authors represented are Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Benjamin W. Arnett, Alexander Crummell, and Emanuel Love.

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Civil Rights Oral Histories

On May 12, 2009, the U. S. Congress authorized a national initiative by passing The Civil Rights History Project Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-19). The law directs the Library of Congress (LOC) and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) to conduct a survey of existing oral history collections with relevance to the Civil Rights movement to obtain justice, freedom and equality for African Americans and to record new interviews with people who participated in the struggle, over a five year period beginning in 2010.

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These collections are among the largest and most heavily used in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. The collections document achievements in architecture, engineering, and landscape design in the United States and its territories through a comprehensive range of building types, engineering technologies, and landscapes.

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National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection

This collection comprises nearly 800 books and pamphlets documenting the suffrage campaign that were collected between 1890 and 1938 by members of NAWSA and donated to the Rare Books Division of the Library of Congress on November 1, 1938.

Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929

This collection assembles a wide array of Library of Congress source materials from the 1920s that document the widespread prosperity of the Coolidge years, the nation's transition to a mass consumer economy, and the role of government in this transition.

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