A talent’s parable

Mary Church Terrell was the first African-American woman in the United States to be appointed to a school board of a major city.

BY KEISHA BELL | Visionary Brief

Volunteer opportunities are easy to find. Issues to work on to make life better for impoverished communities seem endless. How does one balance the responsibility of family life with obligations outside of the home?

Meet Mary Church Terrell, the first African-American woman in the United States to be appointed to a school board of a major city. The daughter of former slaves, Terrell was born on Sept. 23, 1863, and died on July 24, 1954.

She was a civil rights activist, a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a journalist, and one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree. From Oberlin College, Terrell earned her bachelor’s degree in 1884 and her master’s degree in 1888. Her classmates were primarily white males.

Soon after marrying in 1891, Terrell considered retiring from activism and turned her attention even more so to her family life. Frederick Douglass, a fellow activist whom she had grown close to, understood the importance of her specific talents to the Civil Rights Movement. He told her so.

Have you ever thought about your responsibility with regard to the talents you possess in working to improve the lives of others? Do you believe that there is a responsibility at all?

Douglass persuaded Terrell that her talents required her to continue her activism. In turn, Terrell accomplished significant feats, which improved the lives of those coming generations behind her.

In 1896, Terrell became the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, and she founded the National Association of College Women, now known as the National Association of University Women. Her achievements led to her appointment to the District of Columbia Board of Education in 1895.

Terrell had a particular interest in the fight for black women to be allowed to vote. She was an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In addition, she co-created the Federation of Afro-American Women.

Nearing the end of World War I and with other women, Terrell picketed the White House on issues related to employment for black veterans. She was a delegate to the International Peace Conference in England.

In 1950, Terrell started her fight to integrate eating places in the District of Columbia. She participated in picketing, boycotting, and sit-ins. On June 8, 1953, the court ruled that segregated eating places in Washington, D. C. were unconstitutional.

Even after turning 80 years old, Terrell continued to participate in protesting segregated restaurants and movie theaters. Before her death, she was successful in persuading the local chapter of the American Association of University Women to admit black members.

Her long list of accomplishments includes helping to organize the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, as well as assisting in writing its creed. Terrell wrote an autobiography, “A Colored Woman in a White World” (1940). Her home is named a National Historic Landmark.

Terrell made a tremendous sacrifice when she chose to remain in public life. Understanding Douglass’ point, she assumed responsibility for working to maximize the use of her talents to advance civil rights and for the betterment of the voting rights of women, and of African-American women particularly. She continued this work until her near death, truly illustrating a talent parable.

Keisha Bell is an attorney, author, and public servant.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

scroll to top