Mary Church Terrell: Black Suffragist and Civil Rights Activist
Born a slave in Memphis, Tennessee in 1863 during the Civil War, Mary Church Terrell became a civil rights activist and suffragist leader. Coming of age during and after Reconstruction, she understood through her own lived experiences that African-American women of all classes faced similar problems, including sexual and physical violence, inadequate access to health care, limited opportunities for meaningful and fairly compensated work, and no constitutional right to vote. To rectify these inequalities, Terrell participated in campaigns for racial and gender justice.
Mary Terrell formally entered the women’s suffrage movement in February 1891 at the first National Council of Women convention in Washington, D.C. She approached her public support for women’s voting rights with some trepidation: “[T]he presiding officer requested all those to rise who believed that women should have the franchise. Although the theater was well filled at the time, comparatively few rose…. I forced myself to stand up.” As Terrell explained, “In the early 1890s it required a great deal of courage for a woman publicly to acknowledge…she believed in suffrage for her sex when she knew the majority did not.”
Attending a convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in the early 1890s, Terrell later recalled: “When the members of the Association were registering their protest against a certain injustice, I arose and said, ‘As a colored woman, I hope this Association will include in the resolution the injustices of various kinds of which colored people are the victims.’” From the platform, Susan B. Anthony asked if she was a NAWSA member. Terrell replied, “No, I am not…but I thought you might be willing to listen to a plea for justice by an outsider.” Happily, she reported, “Miss Anthony invited me to come forward, write out the resolution which I wished incorporated with the others, and hand it to the Committee on Resolutions. And thus began a delightful, helpful friendship.” Although she appreciated the personal warmth, Terrell regretted that as time went on, Anthony narrowed NAWSA’s focus from a broader women’s rights platform toward the sole goal of gaining woman suffrage at the national level, even if it meant accepting restrictions on voting, from poll taxes to literacy tests, that could be used to keep African-American women from the polls, thereby encouraging southern white women to join the suffrage movement.
The African-American women’s club movement came of age on the national scene when segregation became entrenched and disfranchisement of African-American men spread throughout the South. In 1896, Mary Church Terrell became the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), arguing that voting rights for black women were inseparable from questions of black men’s disfranchisement and the broader freedom struggle.
African-American women’s club leaders created their own brand of suffragism that prioritized racial justice. At the NACW’s 1904 convention, the delegates formally resolved to support women’s suffrage. African-American clubwomen, identifying themselves as “members of The Equal Suffrage League, representing the National Association of Colored Women,” petitioned Congress in 1908 for a constitutional amendment. They also demanded a federal suffrage bill to protect the voting rights of black men.
Impressed by the radical protest tactics of the British suffrage movement, Terrell hoped to participate in direct action in the United States. The opportunity came on March 3, 1913, when she proudly marched with other African-American suffragists in the first women’s suffrage parade held in the nation’s capital. Planned for the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, the 1913 march was a seminal event in the history of the campaign for women’s voting rights. It is also well known for being marred by the attempts of white suffrage leaders to block African-American women’s equal participation.
Alice Paul, the young, white, college-educated Quaker, who organized the march for NAWSA, hoped to carry the favor and participation of white southern women. Paul first planned on excluding black suffragists and then hoped to segregate them at the very end of the parade. Several African-American suffragists, including Terrell, defiantly marched throughout the parade.
Admiring Alice Paul’s use of militant direct action, Terrell did not give up on Paul and her militant National Woman’s Party (NWP). Instead, she persistently called on Paul to advocate for voting rights for all African Americans, as well as white women. During World War I, Terrell and her teenage daughter, Phyllis, joined the NWP’s Silent Sentinels, willingly risking arrest and violent attacks. In her memoir, Terrell wrote: “The National Woman’s Party, led by Alice Paul, used to picket the White House in the afternoon…. On a bitter cold day, the phone would ring and a voice from Headquarters…would inquire, ‘Will you come to picket the White House this afternoon?’ As a rule, I complied with the request and several times Phyllis would come with me to swell the number. Sometimes it was necessary to stand on hot bricks supplied by a colored man employed expressly for that purpose to keep our feet from freezing.” Terrell was proud of her daring picketing, noting one particularly close call: “several women were arrested for picketing and sent to Occoquan, the workhouse, when I was absent from my post.”
In August of 1920, Tennessee voted for the 19th Amendment, becoming the last state needed to ratify it. Yet the passage of the 19th Amendment did not diminish the gulf between white and black suffragists. Alice Paul continued to ignore black women’s demands that the NWP work to secure African Americans’ voting rights, particularly in the South. When Paul initiated a new campaign for women’s equality in 1921, she denied the vital intersections of gender and race. Paul claimed the NACW was not a feminist group but a “racial one,” and so banned it from formal participation, although a few African-American NWP members were later told they could attend the convention as individuals.
In the weeks before the National Women’s Party’s 1921 national convention, African-American women suffragists tried to bring their concerns to the attention of Paul and the NWP. Imploring them to try to understand women’s voting rights from a broader perspective, Terrell pointed to racist actions and laws, including lynching, segregation, poll taxes, literacy tests, and the convict lease system that kept African-American men terrorized and disfranchised, especially in the South.
Terrell and her compatriots hoped that her direct participation in picketing would give her more influence when speaking with Paul. With the help of a white NWP ally, Ella Reed Murray, they planned to introduce a resolution from the convention floor, “urging Congress to appoint a committee to investigate the disfranchisement of colored women.” But Murray confirmed their suspicion that, even after having achieved ratification of the 19th Amendment, “Miss Paul did not want to inject the race problem into her suffrage work.” In order not to be “double-crossed by Miss Paul” during the convention, the women decided to ask her in advance to endorse their resolution demanding a congressional investigation into violations of African-American women’s voting rights.
Representing the NAACP and the NACW, Mollie Terrell and her friend Addie Hunton, joined other black suffragists at NWP headquarters, where Terrell read their statement. Despite the clarity of their request, Paul asked “What do you women want me to do?” Terrell replied, “I want you to tell us whether you endorse the enforcement of the 19th Amendment for all women.” To the women’s disgust, Paul refused to say she did. Terrell reflected, “Alice Paul had displayed the most painful lack of tact I had ever seen.”
As one of the few African-American women allowed to participate in the NWP convention as an individual who could speak from the floor, Terrell “addressed the Resolutions Committee asking for a Congressional Investigation. I said colored women need the ballot to protect themselves because their men cannot protect them since the 14th and 15th Amendments are null and void. They are lynched and are victims of the Jim Crow Car Laws, the Convict Lease System, and other evils.”
Trying to make the interconnected issues of black women’s disfranchisement and the violence against them appear real to the disinterested and distant NWP members, Terrell described the terrifying gendered brutality experienced by African-American women. She gave the specific example of the pregnant woman, Mary Turner, who was lynched in Valdosta, Georgia, in 1918 for protesting the lynching of her husband: “A colored woman, two months before she was to become a mother, had her baby torn from her body.” Terrell’s heart sank upon hearing white feminists’ cruel and insensitive comments about the brutal murder: “‘What did she do?’ one asked. Another said, ‘She did something, of course.’” Terrell was profoundly disappointed that her white female audience did not empathize as women, and find the gendered violence as deeply disturbing as she did. NWP members’ interest in protecting women’s equality and their bodily integrity did not extend to African-American women.
Terrell later admitted that her feelings had been “lacerated” and her “heart so wounded” by racism. She suffered not only from racism in daily life but also from what she encountered on the front lines of her work for equality. She had to face the cruel remarks of white women who did not value black rights and autonomy. She also faced the truth that their resolution had no chance. Nonetheless, Murray presented it on the convention floor, where it was voted down by the white NWP delegates. Yet, in the midst of this difficult confrontation, Terrell and her daughter proudly asserted their rightful place in suffrage movement history. With the white NWP picketers, they “went to the Hotel Washington to get our Distinguished Service medals for picketing the White House. We all carried banners and marched in. The pins are in the shape of banners.” However disheartened and frustrated, African-American women persisted in advocating their own goals and agendas while continuing their attempts at interracial dialogue with white women, in order to achieve those goals.
Alison M. Parker is Chair & Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware. She has research and teaching interests in U.S. women’s and gender history, African American history, and legal history. She majored in art history and history at the University of California, Berkeley and earned a PhD in history from the Johns Hopkins University. In 2017-2018, Parker was an Andrew W. Mellon Advanced Fellow at the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University, where she worked on her biography of the civil rights activist and suffragist Mary Church Terrell. Her book, Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell is forthcoming from the University of North Carolina Press, in its John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture. Parker is the author of, among other publications, Articulating Rights: Nineteenth-Century American Women on Race, Reform, and the State (2010) and Purifying America: Women, Cultural Reform, and Pro-Censorship Activism, 1873-1933 (1997). Parker also serves as co-editor of the Gender and Race in American History book series for the University of Rochester Press. As Chair of the History Department at the University of Delaware, Parker is committed to helping to build a coalition of students, faculty, and staff promoting a wide-ranging anti-racism agenda.
Brown, Elsa Barkley. “Imaging Lynching: African American Women, Communities of Struggle, and Collective Memory.” In African American Women Speak Out on Anita Hill–Clarence Thomas, edited by Geneva Smitherman, 100–124. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1995.
Chicago Daily Tribune. “Illinois Women Feature Parade: Delegation from This State Wins High Praise by Order in Marching. Cheered by Big Crowd. Question of Color Line Threatens for While to Make Trouble in Ranks.” March 4, 1913, 3.
Cott, Nancy F. “Feminist Politics in the 1920s: The National Woman’s Party.” Journal of American History 71, no. 1 (June 1984): 43–68.
Crenshaw, Kimberle, and Andrea J. Ritchie. Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality against Black Women. New York: African American Policy Forum, 2015.
Feimster, Crystal N. Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Hine, Darlene Clark. “For Pleasure, Profit, and Power: The Sexual Exploitation of Black Women.” African American Women Speak Out on Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas, edited by Geneva Smitherman, 168–77. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1995.
Murray, Ella Rush. “The National Woman’s Party and the Violation of the Nineteenth Amendment,” The Crisis, 21:6 (April 1921): 259-261.
Salem, Dorothy. To Better Our World: Black Women in Organized Reform, 1890–1920. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson, 1990.
Southard, Belinda A. Stillion. Militant Citizenship: Rhetorical Strategies of the National Woman’s Party. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2011.
Taylor, Julius F. “The Equal Suffrage Parade was Viewed by Many Thousand People from All Parts of the United States. No Color Line Existed in Any Part of It. Afro-American Women Proudly Marched Right by the Side of the White Sisters,” Broad Ax, Vol. 18, N. 23, March 8, 1913, 1.
Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African-American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850–1920. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1998.
Terrell, Mary Church. A Colored Woman in a White World. Washington, D.C.: Ransdell, 1940; reprinted and revised, National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs Inc.,1968.
———. 1909 Diary, Mary Church Terrell Papers, Library of Congress, Reel 1.
———. 1921 Diary & 1949 Diary, Mary Church Terrell Papers, Oberlin College Archives.
White, Deborah Gray. Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894–1994. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999.
 Mary Church Terrell (MCT), A Colored Woman in a White World [hereafter, Colored], 144.
 MCT, Colored, 143, 145.
 See Salem, To Better, 14–27; White, Too Heavy, 27–29.
 Quote from Terborg-Penn, African, 88, 95.
 MCT Diary, November 4, 1909, MCTP, LOC, Reel 1.
 Julius F. Taylor, “The Equal Suffrage Parade was Viewed by Many Thousand People From All Parts of the United States. No Color Line Existed in Any Part of It. Afro-American Women Proudly Marched Right By the Side of the White Sisters,” Broad Ax, Vol. 18, N. 23, March 8, 1913, 1; and “Illinois Women Feature Parade: Delegation from This State Wins High Praise by Order in Marching. Cheered by Big Crowd. Question of Color Line Threatens for While to Make Trouble in Ranks,” Chicago Daily Tribune, March 4, 1913, 3.
 MCT, Colored, 316-317.
 See Cott, “Feminist,” 51–54.
 MCT Diary, November 12, 1909, MCTP, Library of Congress, Reel 2.
 MCT Diary, Thursday, February 10, 1921, Oberlin College Archives.
 MCT Diary, February 10, 11, & 14, 1921, Oberlin College Archives.
 MCT Diary, January 21, 1921; and February 17, 1921, Oberlin College Archives.
 MCT Diary, February 17, 1921, Oberlin College Archives.
 Darlene Clark Hine suggests white Americans’ racism made them view as “unimaginable the possibility that a Black woman could be raped, sexually exploited, or harassed.” Hine, “For Pleasure, Profit, and Power,” 101; Brown, “Imaging Lynching,”169; Crenshaw and Ritchie, Say Her Name; Feimster, Southern Horrors, 158; Southard, Militant Citizenship, 181–83; MCT, Colored, 316–17. MCT Diary, February 17, 18, 1921, Oberlin College Archives.
 MCT Diary, Friday, February 18, 1921; and MCT Diary, April 2, 1949, Oberlin College Archives.