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On Exhibit at Robeson Library: Mary Church Terrell: Founder and Icon

February 7, 2020
Photo of Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell was a pioneering figure in the intersectional movements for suffrage and civil rights.

Mary Church Terrell: Founder and Icon is on display at Paul Robeson Library now through March 15, 2020.

Mary Church Terrell was a pioneering figure in the intersectional movements for suffrage and civil rights. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1863, the same year that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Mary was taught the value of education by her parents and became one of the first African American women to graduate from Oberlin College in 1884.

After obtaining a master’s degree in education, she moved to Washington, D.C. and married Robert Heberton Terrell in 1891. Mary became very active in social reform and volunteer work in Washington and focused much of her attention on securing the right to vote. Although she counted Susan B. Anthony as a personal friend, Terrell faced reluctance from within the suffrage movement to include African American women. Undaunted, she instead channeled her efforts into nurturing black women's organizations that would work to end both racial and gender discrimination. Terrell became a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896, serving as its first president until 1901, when she was appointed honorary president for life.

Terrell would accomplish further distinctions by becoming the first African American woman ever appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education. In 1949 she became the first African American admitted to the Washington chapter of the American Association of University Women. She spent her later years taking on Jim Crow laws and ending segregation in restaurants in Washington. Prior to her death in 1954, Terrell witnessed the Supreme Court's historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling which ended segregation in schools.

As part of Rutgers–Camden Black History Month programming, Reflecting on Black Femininity: The Year of the Woman, student success librarian Samantha Kannegiser is hosting a Mary Church Terrell transcribe-a-thon in the Paul Robeson electronic classroom on Thursday, February 20, from noon to 3 p.m.  No prior knowledge or experience necessary! Participants will help transcribe Terrell’s diaries and letters owned by the Library of Congress. Transcribing these documents makes them searchable, readable, and more accessible to the world.