The Black Woman Who Led the Fight Against Jim Crow – And Why No One Has Ever Heard of Her

In his first inaugural address, on January 20, 2009, President Barack Obama, highlighting how far the nation and Washington DC had come, described himself as someone “whose father, less than sixty years ago, might not have been served at a local restaurant.” But he failed to mention the black woman who was responsible for desegregating Washington DC’s restaurants in 1953, a year before Brown v. Board of Education.

On January 27, 1950, 86-year-old Mary Church Terrell had walked into Thompson’s Restaurant, a cafeteria located a few blocks from the White House. The manager refused to serve her and two African American activists who had gone with her, the Rev. William H. Jernagin, pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, and Geneva Brown, the secretary-treasurer of the United Cafeteria and Restaurant Workers Union. The manager’s reason? They were “colored.”

“Do you mean to tell me that you are not going to serve me?” Terrell asked.

The manager apologized. It was not his fault, he said. It was his company’s policy not to serve Negroes.

Terrell and her colleagues had expected that answer, and they enlisted two lawyers to help them challenge Thompson’s for violating Reconstruction-era anti-discrimination ordinances that banned Washington restaurants from discriminating by race. The laws had languished on the books for decades, not enforced and never repealed. And because the laws made it a misdemeanor for restaurants to discriminate against customers by race, Terrell and her colleagues needed the help of local prosecutors, who had long shown little interest in enforcing the ordinances and prosecuting restaurants for refusing to serve blacks.

Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in Terrell’s case, District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc. In an opinion by Justice William O. Douglas, the Court invalidated restaurant segregation in the nation’s capital, upholding the Reconstruction-era prohibition against race discrimination. From that date, Obama’s father could have been served at a local restaurant. That decision set the stage for Brown v. Board of Education and for a decade of civil rights struggles that eventually granted the country’s African-Americans full civil rights.

Mary Church Terrell, who initiated the test case, had been the most prominent woman in the civil rights movement for over fifty years. An Oberlin College graduate and the daughter of former slaves, she was once known as the female Booker T. Washington. She was also a militant feminist, a founder of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. In 1904, she gave remarks in English, German and French at the International Congress of Women in Berlin. That same year, Lewis Douglass, the oldest son of Frederick Douglass, called her “the greatest woman that we have.” After World War II, she was a very early leader of the campaign against racial segregation in public accommodations.

Yet while almost every student of American history knows about Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks, almost no one knows who Terrell was. After her death in 1954, she simply vanished from history. That may be because in the early part of the twentieth century, when Booker T. Washington and supporters of racial separation held sway, her open defiance of racial discrimination became an irritant. Or it may be because she was also an early supporter of women’s rights among men who preferred that women play a servile role. Or it may simply be because she was too far ahead of her time. At a time when activists from Black Lives Matter are pushing the boundaries of respectable protest, it’s worth revisiting the story of Mary Church Terrell.

What will I Become?

Mary Church was born in Memphis in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation. Her parents, Robert R. Church and Louisa Ayers Church, were the mixed-race children of their white masters. As adults, both parents were entrepreneurs. Her mother operated a hair salon catering to white women. Her father owned a billiard hall and brothels and speculated in real estate. After the Civil War, he amassed a fortune and spent lavishly, surrounding his family with domestic servants, horses and carriages.

Yet Mary Church, his daughter, also knew loss and isolation. Her parents divorced when she was young. She and her younger brother, Thomas, lived with their mother. When Mary was about six, her mother sent her north to Yellow Springs, Ohio, to get an education. Later Mary moved to Oberlin, where she lived in a rented room and went to public school. She rarely went home, even for vacations. Her Christmas presents arrived by mail.

A hotbed of abolitionism, the town of Oberlin had served as a station on the Underground Railroad. Three black Oberlin residents had joined John Brown, the son of an Oberlin College trustee, for an 1859 raid on a federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, hoping to spark a slave rebellion. Oberlin College had similarly progressive DNA. Coeducational when founded in 1833, Oberlin accepted black students in 1835. Thirty black women had already graduated when Mary Church enrolled in 1880. When she graduated in 1884, she was one of three African American women in her class. Her parents skipped the ceremony. Their reason for not going is unclear, but the impact it had was not. Mary Church, who had sacrificed so much to become a college graduate, would spend much of her life seeking recognition.

The path for doing so was already clear. She was committed to civil rights and feminism. As an undergraduate, she had written that white bias against blacks had inspired their “struggles to resist the oppressor.” Similarly, she wrote, men who did not value women for their intellects had inspired women “to improve their minds.”

In July 1908, a white man on a streetcar had refused to make room for her. She sat down anyway and they exchanged words. He addressed her with a racial epithet. She slapped him.

Armed with her principles and her college degree, Mary Church went into teaching. At the all-black Preparatory High School in Washington, she met Robert H. Terrell, an 1884 graduate of Harvard College whose parents had been slaves in Virginia. As a teenager, Terrell worked as a waiter in Harvard University’s Memorial Hall, in a dining room where students ate. A decade later, at the opposite end of the building, he spoke at his commencement ceremony in Sanders Theatre.

But Mary Church and Robert Terrell did not automatically become a couple. In 1888, she went abroad, to study and live in Europe. She kept diaries in French and German. In her journal on September 10, 1888, she seemed flummoxed when Robert Terrell asked her for a photograph. In another entry, she confided that she wanted to become a writer. “Que deviendrai-je?”, she wrote in French on February 11, 1889. “What will I become?”

Near the end of her two years abroad, a white German suitor proposed to her. Church’s father refused to consent. “Mary has been indulged all her life,” Church wrote, in a letter dated February 24, 1890. His daughter, who might have been relieved by his decision, cited another reason. In her journal, on March 8, 1890, she wrote that people from different races should not marry. Later that year, she went back to teaching at the Preparatory High School.

Robert Terrell, in the interim, had graduated with a law degree from Howard University on May 27, 1889 and landed a job at the Treasury Department. He proposed in 1891. This time, her father did not stand in the way, but Mary Church had her doubts. Before the wedding, Oberlin approached her about working as its registrar. She called off the engagement, but then reconciled with Terrell and went through with the ceremony. In a photograph, alone in her French silk gown with a fur rug at her feet, she radiated anxiety, as if she thought she had made a mistake.

As a couple, the Terrells were intellectual equals. Their letters conveyed affection and warmth. But without a career outside the home, Mary Church Terrell was restless. Almost a year after the wedding, she spent the summer in Saratoga Springs, New York, recovering from a miscarriage. She went back to her husband and Washington that fall, but only after encouraging him to reform his ways. She wanted him to eat better, exercise every day, abstain from drinking alcohol and stay close to her in the evenings. She reminded him she had put her literary aspirations on hold.

A Pilgrimage to Harper’s Ferry

The Terrells lived well as college-educated African Americans in the capital, but the situation for American blacks kept deteriorating. On May 18, 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court released Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld segregated seating in Louisiana railway cars. The decision was the basis of what became known as the “separate but equal” doctrine. It would remain valid until Brown — and it galvanized black activists.

In July 1896, two months after Plessy, black club women gathered in Washington for a three-day convention. By the end of the proceedings, delegates had formed a new organization, called it the National Association of Colored Women, and elected Mary Church Terrell as their first president. Afterward, several of the women made a “pilgrimage” to Harpers Ferry. Outside the brick engine house where John Brown had been captured, they posed for a photograph, wearing skirts and bonnets, holding parasols aloft.

Terrell, who had bristled at gender bias as an undergraduate, shaped an ambitious agenda for the NACW: sharing power with men, not deferring to them. In her first speech as president, in September 1897, she said black women had banded together to be “partners” in “progress and reform.”

True to her feminism, she forged a career for herself outside the home. She gave lectures. She wrote magazine articles. Even the birth of her daughter Phyllis in 1898 did not derail her. Her mother moved in and took care of Phyllis while she was on the road giving speeches on the “Progress of Colored Women” and on Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Sign for the “colored” waiting room at a bus station in Durham, North Carolina, 1940

By the turn-of-the-century, the Terrells were an African American power couple, with ties to the White House and black elites. At the urging of Booker T. Washington, the founder of Alabama’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Robert Terrell to fill a justice of the peace vacancy in 1901.

Even Mary Church Terrell, however, could not avoid racial bigotry. As Jim Crow restrictions spread across the South, she struggled with how and whether to respond. With her light skin — a complexion some described as Andalusian — she sometimes passed for white, even in the South. Other times, train officials directed her to the Jim Crow car, an experience she naturally found humiliating. “Had a restful night considering the kind of car in which I rode,” she wrote in her journal on February 22, 1905, after a trip to Savannah.

She and her husband were loyal to Booker T. Washington, who viewed vocational training as the path to eventual equality for blacks. But in a 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois had challenged Washington’s doctrine of submissiveness, calling on black men to “insist” on full citizenship. She had held her tongue often in the face of discrimination, but in the fall of 1906, when Roosevelt discharged “without honor” 167 African American soldiers for their alleged role in racial unrest in Brownsville, Texas, she lobbied Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, to suspend the president’s order so the troops could stand trial. Taft imposed a brief reprieve, but when Roosevelt insisted on their removal, she reacted sharply. In a speech in Cleveland on October 14, 1907, Terrell criticized the Roosevelt administration for deserting American blacks. “Those who were once our strongest advocates now have almost nothing to say in our behalf or to our credit,” she said. And she charged that Southerners had “poison[ed] the public mind” against African Americans.

Booker T. Washington’s supporters in the negro press retaliated. The New York Age called her Cleveland speech “ill-advised, ill-tempered, and uncalled for.” The Washington Bee said she always made “hot air” speeches. And the editorialists also tried to discredit her by noting her use of a skin lightener and her ability to ride in whites-only train cars. As a result, she found herself marginalized even among Du Bois’s supporters. The NAACP recognized her as a charter member in 1909, but gave her no leadership or speaking role.

In Washington, where Jim Crow was observed in restaurants, hotels, theaters and department stores, but streetcars were integrated, segregation was getting worse, and she found herself on the receiving end. In July 1908, a white man on a streetcar had refused to make room for her. She sat down anyway and they exchanged words. He addressed her with a racial epithet. She slapped him. The matter apparently ended there, but in 1913, the administration of President Woodrow Wilson segregated federal employees. In the summer of 1916, a drugstore clerk in Washington refused to serve her at a soda fountain.

Mary Church Terrell continued to be active. Terrell, like post-Civil War blacks, was a loyal Republican, and after women gained the right to vote in 1920, she stumped for the Republican presidential candidate, Senator Warren G. Harding of Ohio. But the experience only led to further disappointment. She failed to land a job in his administration, which went on to extend the reach of Jim Crow in Washington. On May 30, 1922, there was even segregated seating at the Lincoln Memorial’s dedication ceremony. Over the next few years, Robert Terrell’s health deteriorated and he suffered two strokes. He died on December 20, 1925, after a cerebral hemorrhage. Mary Church Terrell, who had dreamed of literary success for decades, and who was already in her sixties, began working on her autobiography.

As a writer and memoirist, though, she struggled. “Shall I or shall I not reveal the secrets of my heart?” she wrote in an undated handwritten draft. She had no shortage of potential material: her parents’ divorce, tensions from balancing her role as a mother, wife and activist, frustrations about her lack of a more prominent role in the NAACP. Ultimately, her answer was no. In a typed undated draft, she wrote that she had decided to focus on “opportunities” she had enjoyed, not “obstacles” and “barriers” she had encountered. But as a result, publishers rejected her manuscript. She had failed to tell her story in a way that would captivate readers, one editor explained in April 1935.

Terrell did not give up. In 1940, she convinced H.G. Wells, the British author, to write an introduction to her memoir. He had entertained her at his country home in 1919 after she gave a lecture in Zurich. In his essay, he said he liked her, but her autobiography was “artless” and suffered from “a discreet faltering from explicitness.” Terrell trimmed some of his most negative comments and self-published her memoir, with his edited introduction.

It’s like another Emancipation

After World War II, Terrell turned back to battling Jim Crow. Washington’s racial segregation had become a geopolitical embarrassment. Restaurants refused to serve dark-skinned diplomatic envoys from countries such as Africa and India, treating them as if they were American blacks. Terrell knew this gave her leverage.

One of Terrell’s first targets was the Washington, D.C. branch of the American Association of University Women, known as the AAUW. True to its name, the AAUW’s stated policy was to accept graduates of accredited schools without regard to race. Oberlin was an accredited school. In fact, one of Terrell’s white Oberlin friends, Nettie Swift, belonged to the D.C. branch. But when Terrell applied in 1946, she was rejected.

Washington’s racial segregation had become a geopolitical embarrassment. Restaurants refused to serve dark-skinned diplomatic envoys from countries such as Africa and India, treating them as if they were American blacks.

Both sides squared off in court. The AAUW’s national organization insisted on race-blind membership criteria. The D.C. branch insisted on staying all-white. On June 13, 1949, a federal appeals court in Washington sided with the branch, ruling that it could exclude African Americans. Nine days later, on June 22, 1949, she appeared at Harlem’s Hotel Theresa. Speaking before the National Committee to Free the Ingram Family, which was named for a Georgia woman, Rosa Lee Ingram, who had been convicted of killing a white man, Terrell delivered a manifesto. “A time comes in the life of a human being and in the life of a group of human beings,” she said, “when patience ceases to be a virtue and becomes an ugly, disgraceful vice.”

Many of us do not challenge discrimination, she said, because “we are afraid of being called agitators.” People had called Douglass and the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison “agitators,” she added. (In the Cold War era, “agitators” was a particularly loaded term.) It was time to use “every legal means,” she declared, to send a message to the country and the world that said “we are tired of being patient with being pushed around.”

Seven months after her Hotel Theresa speech, Terrell walked into Thompson’s Restaurant and began the chain of events that would lead to the Supreme Court decision desegregating Washington’s restaurants. At the NAACP’s annual conference in June 1950, delegates adopted a resolution vowing to fight segregation in Washington. The resolution referred to the Thompson case, but in a slight did not mention Mary Church Terrell.

While the case travelled through the courts, she took to the streets. On Christmas Eve in 1950, she marched in a picket line outside Kresge’s, a five-and-ten-cent store that refused to serve blacks. The local black newspaper, the Afro-American, ran a photograph of her, clad in a winter coat and lace-up oxfords, carrying a sign saying, “Don’t Buy at Kresge’s – The only Jim Crow Dime Store on 7th Street.” The store caved on January 12, 1951, announcing that it would serve African Americans.

Next on Terrell’s agenda was Hecht’s department store, which had a segregated lunch counter in its flagship location at 7th and F Streets, Northwest. She and her supporters, the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws, announced a boycott in mid-April 1951. When Hecht’s refused to change its policy, the Coordinating Committee set up a picket line outside the store.

The Hecht Company department store, a downtown fixture on the corner of Seventh and F Streets. In 1985, Hecht’s closed its historic location. The building reopened in 2003 as a mixed-use development named Terrell Place in honor Mary Church Terrell.

As a result of her activism, she became a target for conservatives and supporters of segregation. The House Committee on Un-American Activities, known as HUAC, released a report on April 4, 1951, charging that Terrell was a Communist “fellow traveler.” In the report, her name appeared along with civil rights activists such as Du Bois and Paul Robeson, the internationally acclaimed actor and singer whom she knew and whom HUAC referred to as a “known” Communist, even though he had denied under oath being a member of the party. HUAC also singled out the two black Washington activists who had gone with Terrell to Thompson’s Restaurant.

Hecht’s folded after an eight-month boycott, on January 14, 1952. Terrell ate lunch at the store’s counter two days later. “We’re second-class citizens because we sit idly by,” she told a reporter from the Afro-American. After the Supreme court issued its Thompson decision the next year, Terrell claimed vindication. “I will be 90 on the 23rd of September and will die happy that children of my group will not grow up thinking they are inferior because they are deprived of rights which children of other racial groups enjoy,” she told the Washington Post.

On June 8, the Court scheduled Brown and four companion cases for a second round of briefing and oral argument. Among them was Bolling v. Sharpe, a challenge to Washington’s segregated public schools. As the Court’s order in Brown made clear, the justices had not yet agreed how to deal with school segregation, including public schools in the capital. They were stalling, taking more time before directing black and white children to sit in the same classrooms.

With Thompson, the Court sent a signal. Terrell’s case was not as far-reaching as Brown would be. It was not a constitutional challenge to segregation. It did not require the Court to overrule Plessy and reject separate but equal. It only dealt with the viability of Washington’s anti-discrimination laws, and it only applied in the capital. But Thompson was still highly symbolic. It allowed the Court to say that at least in Washington DC, the era of Jim Crow was over.

The city heeded the message. Within days, restaurants started serving black customers. Terrell returned to Thompson’s with supporters, reporters and photographers. The manager carried her tray. “It’s like another Emancipation,” said the Rev. Dr. Graham G. Lacey, the pastor of Central Presbyterian Church. The Washington Post noted the absence of disorder and complaints.

After Thompson, Terrell was celebrated. She received the Diamond Cross of Malta in December 1953. Previous recipients included Marian Anderson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune. In February 1954, Terrell was awarded the Seagram Vanguard Award for her efforts to eliminate racial barriers in Washington. The other honoree was NAACP counsel Thurgood Marshall.

In the fall, Terrell resurfaced with a new target. On her ninetieth birthday, September 23, 1953, she announced a campaign to integrate Washington’s movie theaters. They capitulated within a few weeks. In a statement for her birthday luncheon on October 10, she said the movie-theater campaign had been the “shortest and pleasantest” of her career. The restaurant challenge had been the “longest and hardest.”

Mary Church Terrell lived to see the Supreme Court’s unanimous Brown decision released on May 17, 1954. But her health was failing. She died of cancer two months later, on July 24. An estimated 700 mourners packed into Lincoln Temple Congregational Church for her funeral service, braving near-100 degree heat. The overflow crowd spilled into the street.

Notable figures, black and white, paid tribute to her and her activism. Robeson hailed “her unceasing militant struggle for the full citizenship of her people.” First Lady Mamie Eisenhower released a statement, too: “Her life was the epitome of courage and vision and a deep faith – an example worthy of emulation by all who love their fellow men.”

A Footnote to History

Why, then, is Terrell so little-known now? In part, she was eclipsed by Brown, a milestone with far-reaching implications. After Brown, the battle shifted to the South, to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Rosa Parks and the bus boycott. Lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. Protests in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama. Terrell became a footnote to history.

Other factors may have contributed as well. Terrell, who had grown up knowing privilege and wealth, drew on her sense of entitlement to fuel her activism. She expected and demanded better treatment. Along the way, she ruffled feathers. To her brother Thomas, in a letter dated January 10, 1926 she said: “Dubois [sic] doesn’t hate me and he certainly doesn’t love me.”

Mary Church Terrell, 1946, Oil on canvas by Betsy Graves Reyneau

She also never received her due from the NAACP. Women of the NAACP were largely relegated to the receiving line, serving punch and cookies. Terrell resisted that role. As a result, she often worked outside the NAACP. That may have also been a factor in the organization slighting her.

Terrell aligned with progressives who shared her commitment to racial justice, including at least two Communists. Annie Stein, the secretary of the Coordinating Committee, had joined the Young Communist League in 1933, and Stein’s husband Arthur was a Communist party member. Terrell’s attorneys, Joseph Forer and David Rein, who worked with her on the Thompson case, had ties to the National Lawyers Guild, a coalition of public-interest attorneys that HUAC had deemed a “Communist front.”

After referring to the Thompson case in a resolution in 1950, the NAACP ignored it. But when the Supreme Court announced on April 6, 1953 that it would hear Terrell’s case, Thurgood Marshall and his colleagues scrambled. On April 18, they asked the Court for permission to file a friend-of-the-court brief. The Court denied their request and went on to decide Thompson without them. That may have stirred further resentment of her role. Even to this day, the Washington branch of the NAACP does not list Terrell on its web site as one of the organization’s founders in 1909.

Yet she is certainly deserving of mention. She defied Jim Crow in Washington almost six years before Rosa Parks helped spark the Montgomery bus boycott and a decade before protests rocked lunch counters across the South. She won a unanimous decision from the Supreme Court a year before Thurgood Marshall did in Brown. And she did it with nonviolence, with the power of her words, her intellect and her peaceful example.

Her example should still resonate in the age of Periscope, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook Live. As she said in a speech on April 14, 1924, at an anti-segregation meeting in Washington’s John Wesley AME Zion Church, if we want to accomplish anything in this country, we will have to agitate and speak out in tones “the whole civilized world” will hear.

Joan Quigley is the author of Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation’s Capital.