Terrell was born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee. Because of limited educational opportunities, her family sent her to live with friends in Ohio. She received her early education in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and earned her college degree from Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1884. She also spent two years abroad studying French, German, and Italian. After graduation and a short stay at home in Memphis, Terrell accepted a position at Wilberforce College. She later moved to Washington, D.C., for a teaching position at M Street High School. While in D.C. Terrell met and married Robert Heberton Terrell on October 18, 1891.
While in Washington, D.C., she also became very active in women's rights. She founded the Colored Woman's League in 1892, which merged with the National Federation of Afro-American Women in 1896. The organization was renamed the National Association of Colored Women and elected Terrell as their first president. In 1895 Terrell was appointed to the Washington, D.C., School Board, making her the first woman of color ever to receive such a position. She remained on the board until 1901, was reappointed in 1906, and served until 1911.
Terrell became a popular lecturer and speaker who denounced segregation. She wrote numerous articles that reached the national and international media using the pseudonym Euphemia Kirk, which she later dropped. Terrell and another Memphis native, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, were the only women who signed the “Call,” a declaration of principles that called for an end to legal, economic, educational, and social discrimination, and became charter members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1914 she helped in the formation of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority at Howard University, and in 1920 she worked with other women in securing the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution for women's suffrage.
Terrell campaigned for civil rights throughout her life and was highly respected by her community. She received recognition for her role as speaker at the Quinquennial International Peace Conference in Zurich, Germany, in 1937, and in 1940 she wrote her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World. On July 24, 1954, after a brief illness, Mary Church Terrell died at the Anne Arrundel General Hospital, Annapolis, Maryland.
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