Mary Church Terrell’s Influence on Black History Month

Mary Church Terrell between 1880 and 1900 (Library of Congress)

As we celebrate Black History Month, we rightly credit Carter G. Woodson as a pivotal figure who dedicated his life to spreading Black history. The typical story of Black History Month begins in 1926, when Woodson established Negro History Week. However, the seeds of Black History Month were planted decades before by Mary Church Terrell. Terrell is known for her anti-lynching activism and leadership in the National Association of Colored Women. She also maintained a lifelong commitment to disseminating Black history. Highlighting Terrell’s creation of Frederick Douglass Day and her efforts to spread Black history during the late 19th century reveals her influence on shaping what would later become Black History Month.

Terrell’s passion for educating Black students and honoring the contributions of Black leaders fueled her desire to spread Black history. She was born at the tail end of slavery on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee. She was an exceptional women of her time, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Oberlin College by 1888. In 1887, she moved to Washington, D.C. to teach at M Street Colored High school. Local D.C. officials later appointed Terrell to the Board of Education in 1895, making her the first Black woman to serve on it. She leveraged her position on the Board to create the first “Frederick Douglass Day,” which D.C. black schools began celebrating on February 14, 1897. Terrell later lauded her creation of Douglass Day:

I was convinced then as I am today that it is our duty to teach our youth that men and women of our racial group have distinguished themselves in various ways just as those of other races have done. For many years Douglass Day was faithfully observed in our public schools. If I had done nothing else during the 11 years I served as a member of the Board of Education than to make it possible or our boys and girls in Washington to learn what a great man Frederick Douglass was I should consider that my service in that capacity was well worthwhile.

Douglass inspired Terrell, and she saw him as someone who could also influence generations of Black youth. Before he passed away in 1895, they advocated for federal anti-lynching policies together. According to Allison Parker, she modeled herself after the activism and intellectual prowess of Douglass: “Terrell saw herself as Douglass’s protégé and intellectual compatriot, someone who would carry his legacy into the next generation.” Terrell carried on Douglass’s legacy by establishing Frederick Douglass Day.

She conceived of Douglass Day to highlight the global achievements of Black people and to dispel myths of Black inferiority. Indeed, she was well-regarded as a Black history buff. Terrell regularly received invitations to lecture on “the history, progress and future of the Negros of the Unites States.” She also wrote pageants on Black history including one about Phyllis Wheatly. In 1904, she gave a speech about Samuel Coleride-Taylor, whom she referred to as an “Anglo African Composer.” Her speech held up Coleride-Taylor as an example of what Black people could do given the freedom and time to develop their capabilities, remarking, “The banjo and the bones are considered by many to be the limit of the musical possibilities for the Negro. But Samuel Coleridge Taylor of African extraction proves that under favorable conditions the dizzy heights of the Musical Parnassus may be scaled quite as easily and brilliantly by a man whose skin is brown as by his brother whose complexion is white.” For Terrell, the work of disseminating Black history served to instill Black pride within students and to challenge racist depictions of Black people.

Terrell’s promotion of Douglass Day became a departure point for the creation of Negro History Week, and following Woodson’s formal development of it, Terrell worked with him to disseminate Black history in local communities. In 1924, Carter G. Woodson and the Omega Psi Phi fraternity created “Negro History and Literature Week,” which they later renamed “Negro Achievement Week.” In 1926, Woodson officially established the first Negro History Week. Pointing to Terrell’s influence, Woodson established the week in February to encompass Douglass Day (February 14th) and Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday (February 12th). Terrell later suggested that she influenced the establishment of Negro History Week, remarking years later that “Perhaps Douglass Day inspired Dr. Carter Woodson to establish Negro History Week many years after.” Indeed, Terrell worked directly with Woodson to promote black history and Negro History Week across the country. She helped Woodson plan conferences for the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), which Woodson cofounded in 1915, and “urged” him to establish the “Negro History Bulletin” in 1937. ASNLH sent the Negro History Bulletin to local schools and communities across the country to supplement their teaching of Black history during Negro History Week. For example, the first bulletin featured “The Thrilling Escape of William and Ellen Craft.” Nearly 40 years after she created Douglas Day, Terrell continued to promote Black history through her contributions to Negro History Week.

We can draw a line from Terrell’s creation of Douglass Day in 1897, to Woodson’s establishment of Negro History week in 1926, to our celebration of Black History Month in the late 20th century. By the 1960s, students began debating the use of the word “Negro” on Black college campuses and, instead, started celebrating “Black History Week.”1 In 1976, after the advocacy of activist such as Dorothy Height, Vernon Jordon, Bayard Rustin, and Jesse Jackson, President Gerald Ford proclaimed the first federally recognized Black History Month.2 Terrell’s imprint on the development of Black History Month is undeniable and we should appreciate her as one of its key influencers.


  1. For example, see “At Swarthmore Students Study ‘Black History,’” Delaware County Daily Times, February 17, 1968.
  2. Veronica Chambers, “Making Room for Black History,” New York Times, February 28, 2021, 21; Gerald R. Ford, “President Gerald R. Ford’s Message on the Observance of Black History Month.,” February 10, 1976,
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Joshua L. Crutchfield

Joshua L. Crutchfield is a scholar of Black freedom movements, Black intellectual history, African American women's history, and abolition studies. He is a PhD candidate at the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at the University of Texas at Austin where he’s completing his dissertation project titled, “Imprisoned Black Women Intellectuals: Mae Mallory, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Safiya Bukhari and the Black Power Seeds of Abolition, 1955-1980.” Crutchfield is managing editor of the award-winning blog Black Perspectives. You can follow him at @Crutch4.

Comments on “Mary Church Terrell’s Influence on Black History Month

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    This was truly an informed education on the contributions of Mary Church-Terrell, and her influence on the culmination of Frederick Douglass Day, and Negro History throughout the later half of the 19th century, into the 20th century. I am sending this information to my nephew is laxed in his reading about African and African American History as it relates to the Diaspora. We are all in need of a refresher course. Thank you.


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