19th Amendment at 100: Mary Church Terrell

The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, but this landmark event was neither the beginning nor the end of the story for women and their struggle for the right to vote. Join us in 2020 as we commemorate this centennial year with 12 stories from our holdings for you to save, print, or share. February’s featured image is of activist Mary Church Terrell. 

Mary Church Terrell. (Records of the United States Information Agency, National Archives)

 “Seeking no favors because of our color nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice and ask for an equal chance.” —Mary Church Terrell

Although activist Mary Church Terrell was perhaps most well known for her fight against racial segregation, she was also an outspoken advocate for woman suffrage. 

Born Mary Church in Memphis, TN, during the U.S. Civil War to well-off parents, Terrell became one of the first African American women to earn not only a bachelor’s but also a master’s degree. As part of the black upper class, Terrell used her social position to champion racial and gender equality. 

Terrell moved to Washington, DC, in 1887 to teach. After two years touring Europe from 1888 to 1890, she returned to the nation’s capital, where she lived until her death in 1954. After marrying Robert Terrell in 1891, Mary Church Terrell was forced to quit her job because of laws prohibiting married women from teaching. 

In 1892, Terrell helped form the Colored Women’s League in Washington, DC. Women’s clubs were an important way for African American women to improve the health, education, and welfare of their communities. In 1896, more than 100 black women’s clubs joined together to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Terrell was a founding member and served as its president from 1896 to 1901. During her presidency, Terrell began to get involved in the woman suffrage movement. 

Terrell argued that the vote was even more essential to African American women because they were disadvantaged by both their race and their sex, and the vote would be key to achieving civil rights. The NACW’s motto was “Lifting as we Climb”—the idea being that by elevating their status as community leaders, they could elevate all black women. 

As with American society as a whole, the woman suffrage movement was segregated, and black women were not always welcomed at white women suffrage events. After befriending Susan B. Anthony, Terrell spoke at National American Woman Suffrage Association meetings, offering her perspective as a black woman. 

During the lead-up to the passage of the 19th Amendment, Terrell was part of perhaps the two most well known events. The first was the 1913 woman suffrage parade in Washington, DC. Despite attempts to segregate African American women, some black women refused to be separated and marched according to their state and occupation. Terrell marched alongside the sisters of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, which had been recently founded at Howard University.

View of the Woman Suffrage Parade between Ninth and Tenth Street, NW, 1913. (Publications of the U.S. Government, National Archives)

The second event was in 1917, when on multiple occasions Terrell and her daughter, Phyllis, picketed at the White House with members of the National Woman’s Party. Terrell, however, was absent the day several women were arrested and sent to Occoquan jail. 

Even though the 19th Amendment was supposed to give all women the right to vote, many black women—and men—were still barred from voting by discriminatory state laws. Terrell spent the rest of her life advocating for both women’s and African American’s rights and ending segregation in Washington, DC. She died just months after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education ending racial segregation in schools. 

Learn more about the contributions that African American women made to the struggle for suffrage and civil rights in our exhibit Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote and the traveling exhibit One Half the People.

4 thoughts on “19th Amendment at 100: Mary Church Terrell

  1. Women united in a common cause are powerful! We need to celebrate that and vote united in 2020, for the good of our nation.

  2. Thanks for your contribution to Women’s rights and the Suffragette movement. Here in 2020 the rights that so many worked and sacrificed to achieve is at risk. So let’s not let that happen, let’s vote.

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