Mary Church Terrell was an HBCU professor, a pioneer in American education, mentor to the founders of Delta Sigma Theta. She is one of the first Black women in the U.S. to have earned a bachelor's degree, and one of the first two to earn a master's degree, both from Oberlin College in Ohio. The daughter of Robert Church, the first Black millionaire in the South, and Louisa Ayers, who ran a hair salon frequented by wealthy women in Memphis, Terrell herself began her career as a Modern Languages professor at Wilberforce University. She later moved to Washington, D.C. to teach in the Latin Department at M Street School (now Paul Laurence Dunbar High School), the first public high school for Blacks in the country and went on to serve as its first woman superintendent. Terrell also became the first Black woman in the country to serve on a school board, when she joined D.C.'s Board of Education. In 1948, at the age of 85, she won an anti-discrimination lawsuit against the American Association of University Women, and became the organization's first Black member.
She made an impact in the world of education, but she is best known for her fervently fighting for the social and political empowerment of Black women, because she felt Black women were “the only group in this country that has two such huge obstacles to surmount…both sex and race.” When an old friend of hers in Memphis was lynched because his business was competing with local white businesses, Terrell teamed up with Ida B. Wells in the fight against lynching. She spoke five languages, and fought to eradicate the disenfranchisement of Black folks, and fought for educational reform. She was a co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), and helped found the first kindergartens and nursery schools for Black children -- before early learners were accounted for in the public school system.
Young Students (K3-2nd Grade)
Mary Church Terrell believed true freedom would best be achieved through education, and she worked to establish the first preschools and kindergartens for Black children. Why do you think it is important for young children to go to school?
Middle Students (Grades 3-8)
Mary Church Terrell believed in the idea of "lifting as we climb," which meant that we all have a responsibility to reach back and help those who come behind us, as well as those around us who don't have the same opportunities we have. In what ways can you "lift as you climb" right now?
High School Students (Grades 9-12)
In a 1897 speech in Nashville, Mary Church Terrell celebrated the fact that just 30 years after the emancipation of slavery (during which several states passed anti-literacy laws making it illegal to teach Blacks how to read), there were a number of noted Black scholars and a Black wealthy class. She challenged "any other race to present a record more creditable and show a progress more wonderful than that made by the ex slaves of the United States and that too in the face of prejudice, proscription, and persecution against which no other people has ever had to contend in the history of the world." The same is true today -- African Americans continue to achieve in spite of, not because of, the systems that exist today. Why do you think it is taking so long for those systems to crumble?
Mary Church Terrell once said that "seeing their children touched and seared and race prejudice is one of the heaviest crosses that colored women have to bear." Her words are still true today -- but today, they show up most often as low expectations for Black children, a lack of access to curriculum that looks like them, and a lack of "incentive to effort," which she also spoke against, more than direct discrimination. In what ways are you working to fight against all of the above. --first in yourself, and then in your school?
About the Series
A Black Child Can was founded to create a better world for students by empowering the adults around them with the knowledge they need to advocate on their behalf. The 2022 blog series builds on this foundation, encouraging educators to participate in the discussion and reflect on the ways they're showing up for their students.