The Life and Work of Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell (Flickr).

As many across the U.S. were gearing up last year to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the nineteenth amendment and the work of the suffrage movement, several historians seized the moment to emphasize Black women’s role in that story as well as their subsequent erasure from it. One of the Black activists whose work has been highlighted by scholars such as Martha S. Jones was the American activist, intellectual, and journalist, Mary Church Terrell. Alison M. Parker’s Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell is the first full-length biography of Terrell and fills a vital gap in our knowledge of nineteenth and twentieth century Black activism

Although Terrell’s life and work spanned almost a century (1863-1954), her contributions to racial and gender equality in the U.S. and abroad have remained underexplored. Brought to scholarly attention in the 1980s by Black women’s historians such as Deborah Gray White (Too Heavy a load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994), as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (1896) and one of the founders of the NAACP (1909), Terrell is usually described as a traditional figure of the Black women’s club movement. She has been, at times, discounted as an elitist upper-class woman whose commitment to the politics of respectability meant she was out of touch with the Black working class. Parker, Chair and Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware, challenges these interpretations in her exhaustively researched and important study. Throughout the book, Parker shows that Terrell belongs to a long history of Black freedom struggles in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and that she stood at the crossroads of most of the major social and reform movements of her lifetime. According to Parker, the book “tells a comprehensive life story of a woman who inhabited many worlds and whose life provides a timeline of civil rights activism from the 1890s through 1954” (2).

Nineteenth-century racist ideas about Black women’s imagined lack of morals led prominent figures of the movement for racial and gender equality to hide their personal lives and adopt a “respectable” public persona, thus obscuring their private lives and health issues, and offering scholars a truncated image of themselves. In Unceasing Militant, in contrast, Parker portrays Terrell as a full individual, rather than merely a public figure. Intimate details of Terrell’s life such as her family history, her courtship and later marriage to Robert Heberton Terrell, and their struggles to start a family take center stage. Her personal struggles informed Terrell’s approach to advocate for Black women’s health, their children, and their families. Similarly, Parker shows that Terrell’s family history shaped her activism. Both of her parents were born to white fathers who had sexually assaulted their enslaved mothers. Terrell never ceased to advocate for the protection of Black women’s bodies against white men’s violence. She also repeatedly called out the hypocrisy of white racists’ fears of “miscegenation” and the false accusations used to justify the lynching of Black men. 

Parker’s in-depth archival work in Terrell’s personal papers, speeches, diaries, and correspondence as well as public archives, newspapers, and oral interviews, allows her to draw these key connections between Mrs. Terrell’s personal life and her public-facing work. Parker’s exploration of the Terrells’ intimate life also reveals the stakes of Black elite’s political work during the Progressive Era. The Terrells’ personal correspondence highlights their heightened awareness of the allegiances and compromises needed for their survival in Washington D.C. politics. Despite their elite status and national renown — Robert Heberton Terrell was a prominent Judge in the D.C. municipal court and a national celebrity by the late 1910s — the Terrells struggled financially. Parker demonstrates the fluidity and capaciousness of “Black elite” status at the turn of the century. The work of lecturing and touring the nation was not just an upper-class woman’s distraction for Mrs. Terrell. Her income from the lecture circuit was a necessity, not a byproduct of her activist work. The pressures placed upon Black women to both be public representatives of their race while taking care of their husbands and children were at the forefront of her mind; she constantly navigated the demands of her public status as a journalist, lecturer, and lobbyist, as well as the challenges of motherhood and marital partnership. Just as the public and private were always intertwined in Terrell’s life, so they are in this biography. By bringing Terrell’s personal papers to the fore, alongside her published essays articles and speeches, Parker tells the story of a woman who fought for her own intellectual ambitions, the economic and mental well-being of her family, as well as for the national project of racial and gender equality. 

Parker underlines the richness of Terrell’s long life and her multilayered political and activist work by highlighting her lesser-known efforts to create cross-class alliances. Mrs. Terrell’s work shows both the fluidity of class distinctions for Black Americans at the turn of the century, as well as the need to explore the ways that Black organizing at times challenged class-based binaries. In the first iterations of scholarship on Terrell and the NACW, scholars concluded that both were out of touch with Black working-class women and their issues. Parker’s close look at Terrell’s entire career shows that she was both pragmatic and willing to compromise, and radically committed to her goals of racial and gender equality. Terrell did in fact associate with leftist organizations and leaders like A. Philip Randolph; she supported and helped organize Black working-class women in the D.C area through the Women Wage Earners. As a clerk herself, she experienced firsthand the hurdles facing Black federal low-level employees in the 1930s. She also affiliated with Black-listed communist groups in the postwar era, despite the challenges facing Black activists on the left at that time. The example of Terrell shows the need for scholars to explore the variety of class-based and cross-class organizing in the Black political spheres of the turn of the century. 

Unceasing Militant gives us a more accurate understanding of Terrell within the genealogy of Black freedom struggles. Building on the recent historiography of a “long civil rights” movement spearheaded by Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Parker explains that “a deeper, longer perspective on her activism helps us place Mollie Church Terrell more prominently into nearly a century of struggle for African Americans’ and women’s rights” (294). Mrs. Terrell’s organizing ranged from the 1890s club movement to the legal battles and direct action of the 1950s. Her work for Black liberation was multipronged and included not only speeches and essays, but also lobbying in the highest political circles, institution-building, strikes, picketing and boycotts. Parker identifies Terrell’s intellectual contributions as Black feminism; her analysis of the multiple oppressions facing Black women indicated an intersectional understanding of gender, race, class, and regional identity. As Parker puts it, “Terrell built onto a framework of black feminist thought that stretched back to Phillis Wheatley’s early abolitionist poetry to New Negro womanhood and, later, to Alice Walker’s womanism and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality.” (121) Terrell stood at the heart of almost every reform movement of the late nineteenth and twentieth century, from Suffrage to the Peace movement, to anti-lynching, to the fight against the convict-lease system and segregation, to the defense of Black worker’s rights. She also cultivated friendships with some of the most influential Black and white female intellectuals and activists of her time, both in the U.S. and abroad, such as Anna Julia Cooper and Mary McLeod Bethune. 

However, the book’s geographical scope remains strongly U.S.-centered, even though Parker points at times to Terrell’s transnational thinking and experiences. Exploring Terrell’s ideas and political involvement beyond the national scale would allow us to further grasp the complexity of Black female activism at the turn of the century, in the U.S. and abroad. Indeed, Parker’s work is generative and opens countless avenues which remain to be explored by future scholars about Terrell and her fellow travelers. More can, and most likely will, be said about Terrell’s internationalist work, her multilingualism and relationship with Europe, and her involvement with Pan Africanism. Following such threads would allow scholars to tell a version of African American women’s history from the outside in. 

Overall, Unceasing Militant is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the fight for racial and gender equality in the U.S. as well as anyone interested in social movements of the Jim Crow era. Students of Black women’s activism and intellectual thought will also benefit from learning about Mrs. Terrell.

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Malaurie Pilatte

Malaurie Pilatte is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Johns Hopkins University. Pilatte is interested in 19th-20th c. U.S. History, Black Women’s history, Francophone world. Follow her on twitter @MPilatte.