Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Happy Birthday Mary Church Terrell!

Today we celebrate the birthday of Mary Church Terrell!
Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954)

The most courageous suffragists in this country were African American women.  Unlike their white sisters, they faced more dangers such as lynchings and other abuses.  With little or no support from white suffrage groups, they forged ahead and took heroic measures to make the world a better place for themselves and their community.

In July of 1896, the National Federation of Colored Women's club and the Colored Women's League (which Terrell had founded) merged to become the National Association of Colored Women's Club.  This group became the leading African American suffrage group and worked valiantly to achieve better education, social services for children and seniors, and took stands against Jim Crow laws and lynching.  Mary Church Terrell was elected as the first President of the club.  By `1918, membership was over 300,000.  The organization continues today.

The daughter of freed slaves, Mary Church Terrell was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree.  She taught at universities, was fluent in a number of languages and a pioneer for women's suffrage.  By the late 19th century, most suffrage groups focused on the rights of white women.  Terrell, who had befriended Susan B. Anthony, was one of the few African American women to attend and speak at National American Woman Suffrage Association meetings.  As early as 1898, she spoke to the group urging them to include African Americans in their suffrage fight and to be involved in protection of African American women.  Unfortunately, this did not occur.

A founding member of the NAACP, she also worked hard to end segregation.  Her accomplishments were so great that her home in Washington, D.C. is a National Landmark.  In 1940 her memoir, A Colored Woman In a White World was published and it is still available for purchase.

Like all African American women, she was aware that she could be victimized by the terrorism that all African Americans faced.  Recent scholarship has been done on the lynchings of women and I recommend you read this article.  I have yet to find statistics on the number of children that were lynched.  

In my approach to history, I like to look at not only the facts but also popular culture.  It gives me a better insight as to what was considered culturally acceptable.  For suffragists, we see more pro-suffrage postcards available in the early 20th century, a signal of greater acceptance of women's right to vote.  During the same period, postcards were sold that provided photographs of lynching victims like Laura Nelson and her 14 year old son.

Today we celebrate not only Mary Church Terrell's great contributions to suffrage but all African American women.  Thank you Mary.

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