Mary Church Terrell: An Original Oberlin Activist

Yellow Springs (1871-1875)

By the time Terrell (who was called Mollie as a child) arrived in Yellow Springs, Ohio in the 1870s the number of freed "colored" residents had grown large enough to sustain an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church.  Terrell boarded with the Hunsters, a "colored" family with two sons and two daughters who owned and operated the Union House hotel.  The Hunsters treated Terrell as one of their own, as evidenced by an episode in which they complained to the superintendent of schools about a teacher who had unjustly punished Mollie for whispering in class by boxing her ears so hard that she could not hear for days.  The fact that the teacher was made to apologize to Terrell for the unfair treatment made a distinct impression upon her (CWWW 21).

The Model School

The Model School at Antioch College accepted students under twelve years of age, and enrolled approximately 20 students per year.   It was under the jurisdiction of the Preparatory School which fell under the authority of the college faculty, and tuition was the same as for the college.  Like other model schools at the time it functioned as a laboratory for teacher training. Although there is no information about the coursework, the 1866 Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Antioch College of Yellow Springs, Greene Co., Ohio describes it this way:

A model primary school is connected with the College, in which the pupils of the Normal Course will see the best methods of instruction and discipline exemplified. In fine, it is designed to furnish to any who wish to fit themselves for teachers, all the advantages of a thoroughly organized Normal School.  The Trustees feel that they could in no way more fully carry out the purpose of the great Educator, whose name will always be connected with Antioch College—the lamented Horace Mann, than by seeking in this way to minister to the improvement of Common Schools.

After two years in the Model School, Mollie attended the Preparatory Department at Antioch College, and the Yellow Springs Union school. In Yellow Springs Terrell developed a love of poetry, both reading and reciting, and studied German at her mother's insistence. She learned her lessons well, but also made personal discoveries about herself and how she was perceived by others. She recalled a transformational moment in her memoir:

In the public schools at Yellow Springs I learned a fact that I had never known before. While we were reciting our history lesson one day, it suddenly occurred to me that I, myself, was descended from the very slaves whom the Emancipation Proclamation set free. I was stunned. I felt humiliated and disgraced...I was covered with confusion and shame at the thought, and my humiliation was painful indeed. When I recovered my composure I resolved that so far as this descendant of slaves was concerned, she would show those white girls and boys whose forefathers had always been free that she was their equal in every respect. At that time I was the only colored girl in the class, and felt I must hold high the banner of my race  (CWWW 20-21).

At the suggestion of “Mr. Winter Woods, a talented elocutionist” Mollie’s parents sent her to Oberlin to continue her education. Her time in Yellow Springs - with the Hunster family and in the innovative schools - prepared her well for Oberlin and the world beyond, helping her determine the shape of her own future in the dominant culture.

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