Mary Church Terrell: An Original Oberlin Activist

Brief Biography

Mary Eliza Church was born in Memphis, Tennessee on September 23, 1863 to Robert Reed Church and Mary Louisa Ayers Church, both of whom had been slaves.  It is not clear when they attained their freedom, but both were named in the 1870 Decennial Census, age 25 and 24 respectively, and recorded by the enumerator as mulatto.
Robert and Louisa were proud, ambitious people who owned many successful businesses.  Terrell inherited from her parents confidence in her abilities and determination to capitalize on every opportunity regardless of obstacles of race or gender.

Robert Church has often been referred to as the first Black millionaire in the South, and as a result of his prosperity Terrell and her younger brother Thomas had a relatively privileged childhood in the suburbs of Memphis in the Jim Crow era. Despite this, Mollie was sent North to school.

In October 1891, at the age of 28, Mary Eliza Church married Robert Heberton Terrell, whom she met at the M Street High School in Washington D.C. when she joined the faculty as an assistant teacher.  Robert Terrell, who was born in Virginia and grew up in the District, was among the first "colored" honor graduates of Harvard, earning Magna Cum Laude in 1884.  He studied law at Howard University, and practiced law as well as teaching. In 1901 he was appointed the first "colored"  Justice of the Peace in the District of Columbia by President Theodore Roosevelt, and was appointed a Municipal Court Judge in 1910 by President William Taft.  He served on the bench until illness forced him to retire.  He died in 1925 after suffering from several strokes which had incapacitated him for years.

The Terrells endured the loss of three children in five years before daughter Phyllis was born in 1898.  She was named for Phillis Wheatley, the first published American female poet of African descent, and a particular inspiration for Mary Church Terrell.  In 1900 the couple adopted her brother Thomas's daughter Mary. 

Terrell was widowed at the age of 62, but she never slowed down. Some of her greatest accomplishments came late in life.  Mary Church Terrell died in July 1954 at her home in Highland Beach, Maryland at the age of 90.

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This page references:

  1. Portrait of Mary Church Terrell as a young girl
  2. Portrait of Robert Heberton Terrell in graduation attire
  3. Portrait of the Church Family: Louisa Ayres Church, Thomas Ayres Church and Mary Eliza Church
  4. Portrait of Robert Reed Church and son, Thomas Ayres Church