Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

She was a Civil Rights Activist and Co-Founder of the NAACP

Premiere: 7/22/2020 | 00:11:53 |

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) became a national leader as founder of the National Association of Colored Women, coining its motto “Lifting As We Climb,” while also serving as a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and actively wrote and spoke out about lynching and segregation throughout her life.

About the Episode

Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954), the daughter of former slaves, was a national leader for civil rights and women’s suffrage. Her activism was sparked in 1892 when one of her childhood friends was lynched by white business owners in her hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Terrell joined the anti-lynching movement and the suffrage movement as a passionate writer and educator, and focused her life’s work on racial uplift — the belief that Black people could end racial discrimination and advance themselves through education and community activism. In 1896, she helped found the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), coining the organization’s motto, “Lifting As We Climb,” and served as its president from 1896 to 1901. She was also a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Church Terrell was one of the first African American women to earn both a Bachelor and a Master’s degree, and in 1895, she served on the Washington, D.C. school board, becoming the first Black woman to serve on a board of education in the United States. She led the movement to integrate restaurants and stores in D.C., organizing some of the first sit-ins at segregated restaurants at age 86, and instigating the groundbreaking 1953 U.S. Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. J.R. Thompson’s Co. Inc., which outlawed discrimination in public places in the nation’s capital.

Interviewees: historian Treva B. Lindsey, Associate Professor Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies at Ohio State University, and author of Colored No More: Reinventing Black Womanhood in Washington D.C.; activist, educator, writer, and member of the Ferguson Commission, Brittany Packnett Cunningham.


Mary Church Terrell is central to all of the major movements of the late-19th and early-20th century: suffrage, anti-lynching, and desegregation.

1892, Memphis, Tennessee. 28-year-old Mary Church Terrell learned that her childhood friend had been killed by a lynch mob, because his business was seen as competition by local whites.

The lynching of Thomas Moss is this turning point for Mary Church Terrell.

His death is not just a symbol of racial violence, but also the ways that Black business owners were not shielded from the terrorizing of African Americans.

So this fundamentally radicalizes her and how she's thinking about racial justice, and she's going to enter into the world of public activism.

Church Terrell and her journalist friend Ida B.

Wells were among the first to speak out publicly against the thousands of lynchings that occurred at the turn of the century.

'Hanging, shooting, and burning Black men, women, and children in the United States have become so common, that such occurrences create little sensation.

Tom Moss was murdered because he was succeeding too well.

He was guilty of no crime but that.'. Mary Church Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1863.

Her parents, both former slaves, were mixed race.

Mary Church Terrell comes from a very privileged and affluent background.

Her father had made considerable money doing real estate and becomes one of, if not the first, African American millionaire in the South.

Also because this family is fair skin, they are able to have access to certain spaces that most people of African descent would not have had.

Church Terrell was one of the first African American women to earn both a bachelor's and a master's degree, when she graduated in 1888 from Oberlin College.

She's someone who's deeply invested in education, and teaching was the most common career pathway for African American women, and women more broadly, who have completed college education.

And so she takes her amazing talents to this new historically Black college, Wilberforce University, and teaches Latin there.

After studying in Europe for two years, Church Terrell moved to Washington, D.C., in 1890, where she taught at one of the first public high schools for African Americans.

She soon married the chair of the language department, Harvard-educated Robert Terrell.

'I enjoyed assisting him in the Latin department so much, I made up my mind to assist him in all departments, for the rest of my natural life.'. At first, she thinks about removing herself from public life because she's gotten married, which was an expectation for a lot of women.

So for her to really galvanize around the pressing issues of the day and become a force in the founding of numerous organizations and campaigns that would ultimately reshape American history is quite phenomenal.

In 1892, Church Terrell and scholar Anna J.

Cooper co-founded The Colored Women's League to address social problems facing the Black community.

It becomes a platform for her to think about the future of the race, one that's anchored in and created by and for Black women.

I am walking a path that Mary Church Terrell created.

I would not be if it were not for her.

This idea of combining the revolution of the classroom and the revolution of the streets had not really been done before her.

I am Brittany Packnett. I'm an activist, an educator, and a writer, and obsessed with justice.

It's impossible for me to care about education, and not also care about housing.

It's impossible for me to care about housing, and not also care about employment and a living wage.

It's impossible for me to care about a living wage, and not care about someone's healthcare. Police violence, racial justice, gender justice - all of these things are deeply interconnected.

The truth of the matter is I am committed to the belief that everyone can thrive.

In 1895, Church Terrell became one of the first African American women appointed to a school board in the country. Serving over a decade, she advocated for equal access to education in Washington, D.C.

'More than once my heart was saddened when some pupil would say, 'Education will do us no good.

There is nothing for colored people to do except old menial positions.

And we don't need an education for that.''. Two months after the Plessy v.

Ferguson Supreme Court decision upheld racial segregation in 1896, Church Terrell co-founded the National Association of Colored Women. Bringing together Black women's clubs from around the country, it advocated for reforms to improve African American life, including an end to segregation.

She became its first president, coining the motto 'lifting as we climb.'. 'Lifting as we climb' refers to continuing to climb out of the stereotypes about African Americans and specifically African American women that proliferated during this era, and lifting those communities most deeply affected by Jim Crow.

This idea that these women who were educated and powerful could be the ones to really uplift those who did not have those resources.

'The work we hope to accomplish can be done better, we believe, by the mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of our race.'. Mary Church Terrell saw voting rights as critical to the empowerment of African Americans.

She sought support from white suffragists like Susan B, Anthony, whom she had met in the 1880s during her travels in Europe.

She also picketed the White House with the white-led National Women's Party.

'My sisters of the dominant race, stand up - not only for the oppressed sex, but also for the oppressed race.'. But her attempts to forge solidarity across racial lines were rebuffed. During one of the largest women's suffrage marches in 1913, like other Black suffragists, Church Terrell was forced to walk in the segregated section at the back.

Mary Church Terrell is there, marching with these young women from Howard University, being a part of this very historical moment.

Because it was only a few years after this march, that the 19th amendment is ratified.

But she knows that Black women still don't have the status that white women do.

So her activism around racial justice really intensifies.

'Colored women are the only group in this country who have two heavy handicaps to overcome, that of race, as well as that of sex.'. As a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or the NAACP, Church Terrell traveled the country to speak out for civil rights.

She never stopped her protests against lynching, helping to organize the 1922 Silent March to pressure Congress to pass anti-lynching legislation.

'Not a band played, not a sound was heard.

As I walked in silence up Pennsylvania Avenue, I thought of Tom Moss who had been brutally lynched.

And I said to myself, 'there is at least one person in this protest to understands personally exactly what it means.''. No one is born woke. There's something that wakes you up.

And so for Mary Church Terrell, it was her friend being lynched.

For an entire generation, it was seeing the photo of the open casket of Emmett Till.

And one of my catalysts in life would be the death and the legacy of Michael Brown, Jr.

So there are certainly catalytic events that continue to wake people up, continue to energize people around justice.

When I joined the Ferguson Commission, and then later President Obama's Policing Task Force, it was to help try and be a bridge, because my responsibility is to make sure that my community is heard in the very places where decisions about our future are being made.

And that idea of 'lifting as we climb' is so powerful - it's to say there is no success if our people don't come along with us.

Church Terrell led sit-ins and protests well into her eighties.

After being denied entry three times at a popular downtown restaurant, she filed a lawsuit that went to the Supreme Court.

A year before her death in 1954, the Court ruled to desegregate restaurants and stores in the nation's capital.

As many as 200 anti-lynching laws have been introduced in Congress since 1900.

The latest one, named for Emmett Till, is still being debated in 2020.

She was someone who had a vision of justice that was always concerned about the unique position of Black women within the framework of American democracy.

She recognizes the innate and immense power of Black women.

'I cannot help wondering what I might've become and might have done if I had lived in a country which had not circumscribed and handicapped me on account of my race, but had allowed me to reach any heights I was able to attain.'


PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.