May 22, 2018
Hillary Hempstead
Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell Photo credit: Oberlin College Archives

The main library in Mudd Center will be named in honor of 1884 graduate Mary Church Terrell, an educator, feminist, civil rights activist, and a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the NAACP.

When Director of Libraries Alexia Hudson-Ward moved into her spacious, bookshelf-lined office on the main library’s first level, she was playfully warned by library staff there were ‘ghosts’ present in the building. But when one particular book title continually fell from its shelf, she had to wonder, archly, if there might be something to the good-natured advisory.

“I have so many books, but one particular title kept falling onto the floor. Even College Archivist Ken Grossi, in witnessing this phenomenon said to me ‘Someone is trying to tell you something.’  I thought it was likely just caused by vibrations, but no other books ever fell—except for the book by Mary Church Terrell, A Colored Woman in a White World. This happened long before the Board of Trustees made the announcement that the main library was going to named in her honor. So I don’t know what it was—if it was Terrell or just someone else saying, ’you need to read this book.’”

Nearly two years later, the occurrence seems it could have been foreshadowing. An exhibit focused on Mary Church Terrell’s life will open during Commencement/Reunion Weekend, and a naming ceremony will take place during the October 6 inauguration of President Carmen Twillie Ambar.

Mary Church Terrell: Educator, Feminist, Activist

Considered one of the progenitors of the modern civil rights movement, Mary Church Terrell was born in 1863 to mixed-race, formerly enslaved parents. An 1884 graduate of Oberlin College, Terrell was an educator, feminist, and activist who worked to further social justice during a pivotal time in which one’s gender and race were limiting factors. She was a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and signed the charter that established the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Terrell was also a prolific writer who used her prose to further her social and political concerns; her scholarly articles, poems, and short stories appeared in numerous journals and magazines. In 1940, she published her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, which details her struggles with gender and race discrimination in the United States.

“We have pictures of her [in the Oberlin College Archives] as an older woman on the picket line with signs, protesting,” says Hudson-Ward. “Mary Church Terrell really did embody the spirit of the institution around social justice and how one person can change the world.”

In recent years, Terrell has re-entered the spotlight for her role in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc. The case brought about a unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that invalidated segregated restaurants in Washington D.C. This decision took place a year before Brown v. Board of Education, the Court’s landmark school desegregation ruling in 1954.

In February 2016, Terrell’s activist work was the subject of a campus symposium, Complicated Relationships: Mary Church Terrell's Legacy for 21st Century Activists . Organized by Jane and Eric Nord Associate Professor of Africana Studies Pam Brooks and Emerita Professor of History Carol Lasser, the event brought Terrell’s civil rights work to the forefront and celebrated a significant gift of Mary Church Terrell’s letters, diaries, photographs, flyers, and awards to the college archives.

Symposium panelist and trustee Lillie Edwards says the interest in Terrell during the past few years, particularly through the symposium, has affirmed Oberlin’s singular position in the history of higher education in the United States, as well as its “complicated relationship” with inclusion, equality, and equity.

“The symposium revealed the ways Terrell’s courageous life and leadership embodied Oberlin’s legacy of confronting complications and ‘running toward the noise.’  Naming the Oberlin main library in Terrell’s honor affirms something more: that Mary Church Terrell has come home to Oberlin, not only for the people who will use her papers to shape our understanding of social justice activism, but also to claim the library—and Oberlin—as an inclusive personal, intellectual, spiritual, and cultural space,” Edward says.

Of the naming, Brooks says she can hardly think of a better person to honor. “Terrell embodied the determination that it took for a young black woman at that time to live and work in a totally white environment. As an educator, activist, and woman, she personifies all of these ideas and understandings of what our school stands for or hopes to stand for. She gave a great deal to the institution and to our country.”

“Terrell is a woman of national and international prominence,” says Lasser. “We wanted to honor her. I’d like to acknowledge the students who’ve done research based on the records that are currently in the archives. [These students] have led the way in illuminating the meaning of Terrell’s life and her history with the college.”

Celebration Kicks Off Commencement/Reunion Weekend; Official Ceremony to Follow

As part of the naming, an exhibit honoring Terrell’s life will be unveiled during Commencement/ Reunion Weekend and on view in the Lemle Academic Commons inside Mudd Center. The exhibit will encompass four areas: learning, labor, leadership, and legacy. The intention of this approach is to elevate Terrell’s story around the model of the institution that she really embraced, says Hudson-Ward. “We want to celebrate the educational, learning part of this, when she could have become a socialite. She didn’t have to focus on the things she did; she had the financial means to live a very charmed life. [This exhibit will celebrate] her leadership and the quiet and refined ways in which she did things, as well as her legacy—how she has influenced generations of women and generations of leaders within civil rights.”

Grossi says that he is excited for the opportunity to include in the exhibit the rich materials from the Archives that document the life and legacy of Mary Church Terrell.

The official main library naming ceremony will take place at 9 a.m. October 6, when the college will also celebrate the inauguration of President Carmen Twillie Ambar. Along with the naming, the library’s main level will undergo an interior refresh, including an update to the green soffit that will bear Mary Church Terrell’s name. Additionally, Hudson-Ward says library patrons can look forward to new pieces of furniture, updated paint colors, and some reconfiguration of the library’s main level. “We want people to know that Mudd Center is not changing its name—but that the main library is being named.”

Plans are also in the works for a traveling exhibit focused on Terrell’s life. “The goal is to create a series of educational panels that we would not just showcase on campus, but that local schools, churches, community centers, and organizations could request to learn about the wonderful story of Mary Church Terrell,” says Hudson-Ward.

Other initiatives include an online presence to honor Terrell, created by the library’s digital initiatives team. Library staff will also release a commemorative bookmark set in time for Commencement/Reunion Weekend, with another more elevated bookmark set to be released later, along with a 2019 commemorative calendar.

"Oberlin’s history is steeped in moments of recognition of the College’s landmark achievements in its early years that provided access to higher education for women and African Americans,” says President Ambar. “By naming our library after Mary Church Terrell, we are honoring her incredible courage, her great work, and her historic achievements which have made American society more fair and just.”

When thinking about the significance of the naming, Hudson-Ward is exhilarated to be involved in this moment in Oberlin’s history. “People are looking for the progenitors of our thinking around protesting, community leadership, community organizing, and social justice—and Terrell has emerged as a very prominent person.”


Those who attend the Friends of the Oberlin College Libraries reception during Commencement/Reunion Weekend will learn about additional developments for the libraries. Limited edition Mary Church Terrell commemorative bookmarks will also be distributed in the main library during the weekend.

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