Category: Forward Femme

Mary Eliza Church Terrell: A Stylish Figure of Equality and Civil Rights

Mary Eliza Church Terrell: A Stylish Figure of Equality and Civil Rights

Today marks the end of Black History Month 2021 and in celebration, FFF is highlighting Mary Eliza Church Terrell, an incredible Black American woman. Terrell was central figure in the movement to end lynching, desegregation, and promote women’s suffrage. She was an educator, activist, journalist, and a leader among civil rights groups for African Americans and women alike. She accomplished all of this while also looking very stylish in her portraits throughout the years. This post will chronicle some of her career highlights and examine what she wore in images between 1880-1930.

Mary “Mollie” Eliza Church Terrell (1863-1954)

  • 1863 – Mary Eliza Church, later to become Mary Terrell, was born in Memphis, Tennessee and grew up during the Reconstruction Era after the American Civil War. Her parents were freed slaves with both Black and white racial ancestry. They were considered members of the Memphis “Black elite,” and were quite well-to-do. Her father was referred to as the South’s first Black millionaire (though I have not been able to confirm whether or not he was the first). Her mother, Louisa Ayres, owned a hair salon and is believed to be one of the first African American women to do so. This was a notable success as there were few such female entrepreneurs at all during this time. To see photos of Mary Terrell’s early life go here to Oberlin College’s Brief Biography of her life.

As a person of Black and white racial ancestry, Terrell identified as Black but her features were viewed as more ambiguous by society at large. In her autobiography, A Colored Woman In A White World , she noted that the ambiguity of her ancestry sometimes aided in her social mobility at college, and undoubtedly, later as a leader in some predominantly white civil rights groups which may have otherwise prevented or greatly restricted Black women from entry. However, she certainly still endured racism, prejudice, and inequality throughout her life. Some sources say Terrell’s entrepreneurial mother encouraged her to attend college, an unlikely path for most women of the 1880s, and she thrived as a student though she endured prejudice at Oberlin.

  • 1884 – Terrell graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in classics through the “gentleman’s path.” This meant she spent four years in college as opposed to the usual two for women. She graduated alongside Anna Julia Cooper and Ida Gibbs Hunt, two other important African American scholars, and later activists. These were some of the few Black women to have ever earned such a degree in the United States at this time.

    Below are photographs of Anna Cooper in 1892 (left) and Ida Hunt in 1884 (right). While there’s not as much of her dress visible in the photo of Hunt on the right, the high, puffed shoulders on Cooper’s dress at left are telling of the 1890s style.

  • 1885 – Terrell began teaching modern languages at Wilberforce University. This was a historically Black college. She later began assistant teaching at the M Street School in the Latin Department.

  • 1888 – Terrell earned her Masters degree, also from Oberlin, in Education. Fellow graduate Anna Julia Cooper also earned her Masters, and the two were the first Black women to earn this degree. She also studied in Europe during this time and became fluent in German, French, and Italian.

Mary Church Terrell Papers: Diaries, Aug. 26, 1888, Library of Congress,

A page from Terrell’s journal in French is written here in 1888. She was a scholar of languages which must have aided her in future speeches and writings. Here she writes about keeping a journal in French in the hopes of improving her French in the process.

    • 1891 – At the age of 28, Mary married Robert Terrell, a lawyer who also taught at the M Street school. In doing so she was forced to resign from teaching there. Oberlin College offered her a registrar position, which would have made her the first Black woman to accept such a role, but she declined.

    • 1892 – Along with fellow alumna Anna Julia Cooper, and Evelyn Shaw, Ida B. Wells, Helen Appo Cook, Charlotte Forten Grimké, and Mary Jane Patterson, Terrell helped to form the Colored Women’s League of Washington, D.C. This was a service-oriented group meant to improve the lives of Black Americans. She was also elected the first woman president of the Bethel Literary and Historical Society.

      In this same year, Thomas Moss, a friend of Terrell’s, was lynched by a white mob in Memphis because his business was seen as competition to local white business. This horrific incident fueled her activism, particularity towards anti-lynching.

    • 1893 – Around this time Terrell met suffragists Susan B. Anthony, Lucrettia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton through the National American Woman Suffrage Association. Terrell was active in suffragist circles of white women that many other Black women were excluded from. Terrell was able to bring light to African American issues of inequality and disenfranchisement to these predominantly white groups of suffragists.

    • 1895 – Terrell became the superintendent of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School (formerly known as the M Street School), and she was the first woman to obtain this position.

    • 1896 – The Colored Women’s League merged with the Federation of Afro-American Women in 1896 to form the National Association of Colored Women. Terrell was voted the NACW’s first president. Their goal was to unite Black women across the United States and to improve living conditions for Black women and children.

    • 1898 – Terrell delivered her memorable speech, “The Progress of Colored Women,” at the biennial National American Woman Suffrage Association session. The speech was met with much acclaim and she became a sort of Black ambassador for the NAWSA. Below is an illustration of Terrell on a 1898 pamphlet from this address address delivered at the Columbia Theater. Notice her high, curled bangs, loose bun, and high collar. This would have been consistent with the styles of the late 1890s. Terrell’s daughter Phillis was also born this year, named for the poet Phillis Wheatley.

    Terrell was a suffragist who aided fellow Black suffragists in forming their own groups across the country, after being sidelined by white suffragist circles. She worked tirelessly to end desegregation, lynching, and Jim Crow laws as the 20th century progressed. Education was also paramount to Terrell and she became the first Black woman to serve on the Board of Education of Washington, D.C.

    George Vincent Buck, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

    This 1901 photograph above shows Mary Terrell with her daughter Phillis. The high collar and pintuck details on Terrell’s bodice were typical of the early 1900s.

    • 1901 – Robert Terrell was appointed by President William Howard Taft as a judge to the District of Columbia Municipal Court. This helped solidify the Terrell’s higher standing in society.

    • 1904 – Terrell’s work, “Lynching from a Negro’s Point of View,” was published. She began writing as a way to promote activism and equality, while revealing the truths of current inequalities. As a board member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) she also spoke on behalf of the WILPF at the International Women’s Congress in Berlin in 1904. Terrell was the only Black woman to attend and gave an impressive speech in French, followed by English, and an address in German, and received a standing ovation.

    • 1909 – Terrell and Ida B. Wells were the only two women invited to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s first meeting and she became a founder.

    Likely ca. 1905, Author Unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

    This portrait of Mary Terrell was likely taken about 1905. Here she emulates the height of style in a lingerie dress. Consisting of a high neckline, half sleeves, and lacy, light layers, these dresses were popular as a warm weather morning or afternoon dress that emulated 18th century chemise gowns. These dresses were ubiquitous in the Western world in the early 1900s.

    • 1913-1914 – Terrell helped create the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. An African American sorority dedicated to serving the African American community. It is currently the largest African American Greek-lettered sorority.

    Unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

    This photograph of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom conference held in Zurich in 1919, features Mary Terrell (8th from left in the back row). She spoke at this conference, as she had at the prior 1904 conference. She was a board member of the WILPF, a very rare position for a Black woman to hold at this time within the organization. In 1919 her speech focused on issues of colonialism, but she also addressed issues of inequality within the league itself. The woman in this photo are similarly dressed with skirts that are still about floor length, practical separates (long jacket, blouse, and skirt), and the waist seam either at the natural waist or just slightly lower.

    Ca. 1919, Scurlock, Addison N., 1883-1964, Women of Achievement, Woman’s American Baptist Home Mission Society, photographer, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

    In this photograph of Terrell she wears beaded fringe evening wear. The half sleeves and high collar are still in keeping with the style for a more mature woman of the 19-teens, as she would have been about mid-50s in this portrait. The elaborate decoration at the neckline and on the bodice speak to high-end elegance of the end of the Edwardian era. She wears a very similar gown in the portrait below – possibly a full length image of this gown, although the collar appears less decorated.

    Likely ca. 1919, Mary Church Terrell Papers: Miscellany, 1851-1954; Printed matter; Lecture notices, 1905-1938 , undated, Mary Church Terrell papers,

    Terrell continued her work as an activist as the century progressed, though perhaps her most notable achievements were made around the turn of the century.

    This image below is from a handbill on a speech given on March 18, 1926. This style of dress is a stark contrast to Terrell’s earlier looks. The drastic change of the 1920s style can be seen here in the sleeveless bodice, dropped waist, and simplicity in the panels as opposed to her earlier dresses. This is likely an evening dress as there is still a bit of decoration in the side hanging bauble accent, embellished bodice fabric, rich (likely) silk skirt, and long hanging pendant necklace, as well as being sleeveless.

    March 18, 1926, Harris & Ewing photo studio, Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

    Mary Terrell was an ardent activist for equality, and especially desegregation, up until her death in 1954. At the age of 80 Terrell could still be seen on the picket lines for change. Some of her last civil rights acts were participating in boycotts and sit-ins in the early 1950s in order to end discrimination of restaurants and public places. Terrell lived to see the court rule the segregation of eating places in Washington, D.C. unconstitutional in 1953. While her stylish mode of dress changed dramatically throughout her life, her ideals and passion for equality did not. Terrell sets the bar high as a woman of style and activism until the end of her life. We can all be thankful for her commitment to positive change as a central figure in securing rights for Black Americans and for women’s suffrage.


    -Danielle Morrin

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    Elizabeth Keckley
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    Duyckinick, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America. New York: Johnson, Wilson & Company, 1873. [Public Domain]

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