During her life, Mary Church Terrell worked as a writer, lecturer and educator.
She is remembered best for her contribution to the struggle for the rights
of women of African descent. Both her parents had been born into slavery,
but through hard work became one of the wealthier families in Memphis,
Tennessee. Her entire life was one of privilege but the wealth of her family
did not prevent her from experiencing segregation and the humiliation of
Jim Crow laws. While traveling on the train her family
was sent to the Jim Crow car. This experience, along with others led her
to realize that racial injustice was evil. She saw that racial injustice
and all other forms of injustice must be fought.
As a graduate of Oberlin College in 1884 Mary Church was among the first black women to complete a college education. After graduation, she taught at Wilberforce, Ohio and then at the Preparatory School for Colored Youth in Washington D.C. After marrying Robert Terrell, Mary resigned her teaching post to spend the rest of her life as a lecturer, women's rights activist and leader of the Black women's club movement.
Terrell became one of the first women Presidents of the Bethel Literary and Historical Association. The association discussed major issues and questions of the day. There was negative reaction to her leadership, but it was concluded that "she could preside with ease and grace, plan with foresight and execute with vigor."
During the late 19th century, numerous local Black women's service clubs were formed. The Black club members found that they could not affiliate themselves with the National Council of Women, the General Federation of Women's clubs, nor could they be represented at the 1893 World's Fair. Inspired by the ability of national clubs to tackle national issues, black women came together to form the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Mary Church Terrell was the first President of the NACW. The NACW addressed issues ranging from lynching, Jim Crow, suffrage and the plight rural women. Under her leadership the NACW established training programs for and parents programs.
By the turn of the century, Mary Church Terrell had firmly established herself as a lecturer on women's issues.