Mary Church Terrell Biography

Mary Church Terrell (September 23, 1863 – July 24, 1954), daughter of former slaves, was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree. She became an activist who led several important associations, including the National Association of Colored Women, and worked for civil rights and suffrage.

Mary Church was born in Memphis, Tennessee, to Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers, both former slaves. Robert Church was mixed-race and said to be the son of his white master, Charles Church. He acquired considerable wealth investing in real estate in Memphis. Multiple sources refer to Church as the first black millionaire, although it is now generally accepted that his wealth reached only about $700,000. When Terrell was six years old, her parents sent her to the Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for her elementary and secondary education. Terrell, known to members of her family as "Mollie," and her brother were born during their father's first marriage, which terminated in divorce. Their half-siblings, Robert, Jr. and Annette, were born during their father's second marriage, to Anna (Wright) Church.

When Terrell majored in classics at Oberlin College, she was an African-American woman among mostly white male students. The freshman class nominated her as class poet, and she was elected to two of the college's literary societies. Terrell also served as an editor of The Oberlin Review. When she earned her bachelor's degree in 1884, she was one of the first African-American women to do so. Church earned a master's degree from Oberlin in 1888.