Friday, January 14, 2011

What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States

Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954)
From American Speeches: Political Oratory from Abraham Lincoln to Bill Clinton

2009 postage stamp
In 1891 Mary Church, a German and Latin teacher at a high school in Washington, D.C., married Robert Terrell, a Harvard-educated lawyer—and she soon lost her job because of a District law banning married women from teaching in schools. Already a leading supporter of women’s suffrage and an activist for racial integration, she then turned her talents to writing and lecturing on social issues.

It is impossible to do justice to Terrell’s subsequent career without resorting to a litany of appointments, achievements, honors, and “firsts.” In 1895 Terrell began a long tenure on D.C.’s Board of Education and is believed to be the first black woman in the U.S. to fill such an appointment; the following year she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and became its first president. In 1909 she attended the organizational meeting of the NAACP and became a founding member. During her life, she associated with such prominent figures as Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Susan B. Anthony, Jane Addams, and H. G. Wells (a longtime friend who wrote the preface to her 1940 memoir, A Colored Woman in a White World).

Born shortly after her parents were emancipated, Terrell was particularly concerned by the increasing spread and calcification of Jim Crow laws and the horrors of lynching, famously writing a rebuttal in the North American Review to “The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem,” an apologia for mob justice by Thomas Nelson Page that appeared in the magazine’s pages in 1904. Two years later, she appeared before a Washington women’s club and delivered “What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States,” sharing the stories and experiences of her and her friends living under the oppression of the Jim Crow regime; the text of the speech was published anonymously the following January.

Terrell’s remarkable career culminated when, at the age of 86, she led a three-year campaign of court actions, boycotts, and picketing that in 1953 ended the segregation of restaurants in Washington, D.C.—a practice that had been introduced (in defiance of the city’s integration laws from the 1870s) at the very start of her career. After six continuous decades of civil rights activism, Terrell died on July 24, 1954, only two months after the groundbreaking Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka decision—and just two months before the 25-year-old Martin Luther King Jr. assumed his responsibilities as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.

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Washington, D.C., has been called “The Colored Man’s Paradise.” Whether this sobriquet was given to the national capital in bitter irony by a member of the handicapped race, as he reviewed some of his own persecutions and rebuffs, or whether it was given immediately after the war by an ex-slave-holder who for the first time in his life saw colored people walking about like freemen, minus the overseer and his whip, history saith not. . . . If you don't see the full story below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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