(Photo: Courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives)
In the waning days of the 19th Century, it was a rarity for African-Americans to gain access to voting. For American women — Black women among them — it was a legal impossibility. In every way, African-African women were at the bottom of the nation’s equality totem pole. That helps to put in perspective the outstanding accomplishment represented by the founding of the National Association of Colored Women in the segregated world of 1896. The National Association of Colored Women aimed to help African-American women by addressing issues of civil rights and injustice, such as women’s suffrage, lynching and Jim Crow laws.
The National Association of Colored Women was the most prominent organization formed during the Black Women’s Movement. This was due chiefly to the efforts of Mary Church Terrell, who was educated, had economically successful parents and was of mixed racial background. The other founders included Harriet Tubman, Frances E.W. Harper and Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, with Terrell as the first president.
Terrell was born in Memphis in 1863 and was the daughter of Robert Church Sr., a former slave and reputed son of a white master. He built a business and became one of the wealthiest black men in the South. He was able to send his daughter to Oberlin College, where she earned both bachelor's and master's degrees. Years later, Terrell spoke at the Berlin International Congress of Women. She made a great impression because she gave her speech in fluent German and French, as well as English. Terrell was the only Black woman at the conference.
She led the struggle in the nation’s capitol against segregation in public eating places and succeeded in winning a court decision for integration there. After the age of 80, Terrell continued to participate in picket lines, protesting the segregation of restaurants and theaters. During her senior years, she also succeeded in persuading the local chapter of the American Association of University Women to admit Black members.
Mary Church Terrell died in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1954.
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