Learning from Activist Mary Church Terrell

February 13, 2016

Lisa Gulasy

Display case featuring photos of Mary Church Terrell
A portion of the Mary Church Terrell exhibit that will be on display during a symposium February 26-27.
Photo credit: Lisa Gulasy

This weekend, scholars, historians, and activists will gather on campus to attend the symposium Complicated Relationships: Mary Church Terrell's Legacy for 21st Century Activists. Beginning at 4:30 p.m. on Friday, February 26, and concluding early evening on Saturday, February 27, the symposium will celebrate a significant gift of Mary Church Terrell’s papers to the Oberlin College Archives and closely examine Terrell’s life for guidance on how activists can better work toward social justice today. The symposium is a featured event of Africana Unity and Celebration Month and the Think/Create/Engage series on the Framing of Race.

Born to mixed-race formerly enslaved parents in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, Mary Church Terrell was an educator, feminist, and civil rights activist who worked tirelessly across lines of race and gender to achieve a more just and equitable society. An 1884 graduate of Oberlin College—the same year as lifelong colleagues Anna Julia Haywood Cooper and Ida Gibbs (later Hunt)—Terrell went on to become the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women, founder of the College Alumnae Council, charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and a member of the Women’s Committee for Equal Justice, the Civil Rights Congress, and the Women’s Republican League of Washington, D.C. She was the first African American woman to serve on the Washington, D.C., Board of Education. In 1891, she married Robert H. Terrell, the first African American man to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard University, a justice of the peace (nominated 1901), and a municipal court judge (nominated 1901).

Mary Church Terrell is drawing attention today for her role in the case District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc., which she brought against the D.C.-based Thompson’s Restaurant in 1950 after she and three compatriots were refused service. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in that case in 1953 that invalidated the capitol’s segregated restaurants. This was one year before the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, six years before the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, and a decade before sit-ins “rocked lunch counters in the South.”

The Mary Church Terrell papers being celebrated in this symposium were donated to the college by Raymond and Jean Langston at the suggestion of Alison Parker, professor of history at the College at Brockport, State University of New York, and Stephen Middleton, biographer of Robert H. Terrell and professor of history at Mississippi State University. Parker learned from Middleton that the Langstons still had private holdings of Terrell’s papers at their home in Highland Beach, Maryland—formerly Terrell’s summer house, where she died at age 91—after Parker had been working on a biography of Mary Church Terrell for several years.

The Langstons welcomed Parker and Middleton to their home shortly thereafter to examine the collection. “The Langston family’s Mary Church Terrell papers include a wonderful collection of artifacts and papers, some from the 1890s or earlier. They are of great historical value and were in need of a permanent home. Stephen Middleton and I agreed to ask the family if we might help facilitate finding a safe long-term home for these primary source documents. Ray and Jean Langston enthusiastically consented,” Parker says.

“I immediately thought of offering the papers to Oberlin College because Terrell was very proud of having graduated from the college and was thrilled when she was honored with an honorary doctorate in 1948. I knew that Oberlin has a well-respected archive that could handle a new donation and take good care of it. When I returned from Highland Beach, I contacted my friend and colleague, [Professor of History and Director of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies] Carol Lasser, on behalf of the Langstons to extend an invitation to Oberlin College to house the papers.”

College Archivist Ken Grossi traveled to Highland Beach, Maryland, to retrieve the papers in June 2015. Once he had arrived, Grossi says he, with the help of Ray Langston, was able to parse through the entire collection in just a little more than an hour. He returned to Oberlin with six boxes that contained letters, diaries, photographs, flyers, awards, and more.

Grossi says he finds Terrell’s diary entries and writings of particular interest and that the collection provides some evidence of the complicated relationship Terrell had with Oberlin College throughout her lifetime. “We have a letter in another collection sent to Henry Churchill King (Oberlin College President, 1902-1927) where she is conveying her thoughts about her conversations with the then secretary of the college, George Morris Jones, about his feelings toward African American students and minorities. She was not happy with [Jones], and she made that clear in the letter,” Grossi says.

“In 1911 on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Beecher Stowe, Terrell wanted to come to Oberlin and give a series of lectures. Henry Churchill King and his dean put her off. They didn’t want her to come because they thought there was too much attention to matters of race on campus already,” Lasser explains. “She brought her daughters to look at Oberlin as a place to attend college in 1914, not our finest hour. When she came she discovered that the school provided segregated housing for male and female students of color. That reflected a loss of commitment to racial equality. But she hung in there and when the college was celebrating its 100 years in 1933, she was named as one of the 100 most important graduates of the college.

“There are moments where Oberlin has been more positive than others. Really from the 1910s through the 1950s, there was more ambivalence about racial equality at Oberlin than you would have expected from the first college to admit students of color. What’s amazing is she still believed Oberlin is capable of better and she kept pushing. She did not give up. It’s lovely to have these papers because some of them document that very interesting and conflicted relationship.”

A curated display of the newly acquired collection can be viewed in the Academic Commons on the first floor of Mudd library this week and throughout the symposium. Students who have used these and other Mary Church Terrell papers housed in the Oberlin Archives in research projects will discuss their projects at 1 p.m. on Saturday in Azariah’s Cafe.

The presentations will conclude a morning of reflecting on Terrell’s life, as the remaining panels focus on how today’s activists can emulate Terrell’s strategies and tactics for achieving her goal of a more just and equitable society. “As much as we love this history, we know we live in 2016,” Lasser says. “We think Terrell can help us think about social justice and engage in issues of social justice.”

Pam Brooks, Jane and Eric Nord Associate Professor and chair of Africana studies and member of the Advisory Council for gender, sexuality, and feminist studies, cochairs the symposium and will serve as chair of the panel Conversation & Reflections on Terrell’s Legacy for Today’s Activists, which begins at 3:15 p.m. on Saturday. The panel, Brooks and Lasser explain, will open with a discussion of Terrell’s strategy of, as Lasser puts it, “radical respectability.”

“Terrell knew that…black women could be disparaged in ways that refer to their sex, their sexuality, their a-sexuality, their lack of chastity—a myriad of ways of dehumanizing and insulting the humanity of black women,” Brooks says.

“Terrell embodies respectability. She’s the wife of a judge, a college-educated woman. She is smart, interesting, well read, well traveled, and she speaks three languages. To charge your attackers with lacking respectability, to charge your attackers with being the people who are violating respectability is a turnaround that is a weapon,” Lasser says.

Brooks will transition the conversation on how this legacy can help one think about the challenges to gender, social, and racial justice faced on campuses and beyond today. “What many contemporary activists think about as the so-called politics of respectability is not at all what Terrell and her cohort were doing. Terrell accused her opponents of the lack of decency, of having a rapacious sexual appetite. She was turning respectability on its head.”

Brooks and Lasser agree that the symposium, particularly the afternoon panels, will be of enormous interest to students to attend. Grossi agrees. “Hopefully many students will come because it is an opportunity to reflect on how Terrell’s life and accomplishments are an inspiration for all of us today.”

To register for Complicated Relationships: Mary Church Terrell's Legacy for 21st Century Activists, visit the Alumni Association website. To view the preliminary symposium schedule, see this PDF. This symposium is cosponsored by the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies; the Africana studies department; Oberlin College Archives; Oberlin Alumni Association of African Ancestry (OA4); and the Alumni Association. The symposium received support from the Comparative American Studies Program, the history department, Oberlin College Libraries, the Office of the Dean of Students, the Dean of College of Arts and Sciences, and the Office of the President.

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