Mary Church Terrell, One of Suffrage’s Staunchest Proponents
By Phin Upham
Mary Church was the daughter of two former slaves, both of mixed race. Her father had earned his wealth buying real estate, which he’d been able to do thank to his father’s ownership of a steamboat. The young boy would work hard and his father let him keep the wages. By 1862, he owned his first property in Memphis.
When the yellow fever, sometimes called “yellow jack”, struck the city of Memphis, her father continued to invest and build wealth.
Mary benefitted from all this wealth with a fine education and a sense of civic pride. She began her career teaching at a black secondary school in Washington D.C. During her life as an educator, she had the privilege of meeting Frederick Douglas and Booker T. Washington. She was also director of the Tuskegee Institute, which was highly influential throughout Alabama.
It was Frederick Douglass who convinced her that she should pursue a career in the public eye. She became president of the National Association of Colored Women, and worked hard to establish nurseries and new day care centers in her neighborhood.
She later joined the National American Women’s Suffrage movement, where she brought a voice to African American women of the time period. Coupled with her career as a journalist, she was an accomplished activist with widespread ideas.
Terrell would see the fight for women’s suffrage through to the end, but blacks were quickly marginalized with laws that excluded them from voting. Especially in the South.
Although the Voting Rights Act of 1965 would correct some of these injustices, Terrell passed in 1954 at the age of 90.