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Collection Mary Church Terrell Papers

About this Collection

The papers of educator, lecturer, suffragist, and civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) consist of approximately 13,000 documents, comprising 25,323 images, all of which were digitized from 34 reels of previously produced microfilm.  Spanning the years 1851 to 1962, with the bulk of the material concentrated in the period 1886-1954, the collection contains diaries, correspondence, printed matter, clippings, and speeches and writings, primarily focusing on Terrell's career as an advocate of women's rights and equal treatment of African Americans. 

Born to a prosperous Memphis family in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, Terrell witnessed the transition from the systematic dismantling of black rights following Reconstruction to the early successes of the civil rights movement after World War II.  Her own life chartered a course that extended from organizing the self-help programs promulgated by leaders such as Booker T. Washington to directing sit-down strikes and boycotts in defiance of Jim Crow discrimination.  She died in 1954 two months after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision, having herself waged several court battles in the fight against segregation in Washington, D.C.

The Terrell Papers reflect all phases of her public career. They show her as educator, lecturer, club woman, writer, and political campaigner.  Among the issues she addressed were lynching and peonage conditions in the South, women's suffrage, voting rights, civil rights, educational programs for blacks, and the Equal Rights Amendment.  She spoke and wrote frequently on these matters, and the texts of most of her statements, whether brief introductory messages or extended essays, are in the Speeches and Writings file.  Her writings include reminiscences of Frederick Douglass, a dramatization of the life of Phillis Wheatley, numerous articles on black scientists, artists, and soldiers, and examples of "Up to Date," a column she wrote for the Chicago Defender, 1927-1929.

Terrell was one of the founders in 1896 and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women.  Among the groups featured in the Correspondence series in the papers are the National American Woman Suffrage Association, National Woman's Party, and International League for Peace and Freedom.  Her Progressive Era involvement with moral and educational issues is illustrated in records from the National and International Purity Conferences she attended and in correspondence concerning her participation in programs on behalf of the YWCA and the War Camp Community Service in World War I.  Documented in correspondence and clippings files are her two terms on the District of Columbia School Board.  As the first black woman on the board, she was the recipient of revealing letters from school officials and others on the problems of an urban, segregated school system.

The Subject File in the Terrell Papers is comprised mainly of printed matter.  Exceptions include holograph reports and drafts relating to the formative years of the National Association of Colored Women and the interview and travel notes she kept while touring the South in 1919 in the employ of the War Camp Community Service.  During the 1920s and 1930s she was active in the Republican Party, campaigning for Ruth Hanna McCormick as a candidate for the U.S. Senate and serving as an advisor to the party's national committee during Herbert Hoover's presidential race.  Significant in her biographical and testimonial files are the materials Terrell retained from the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws, the committee that successfully assaulted the color line in Washington, D.C., movie houses and restaurants.  

Terrell's personal affairs and family relations form a relatively small part of the collection, but correspondence with immediate family members is introspective and revealing, particularly letters exchanged with her husband, a federally appointed judge, whose papers are also in the Library of Congress.  Her letters to Robert give insight into the attitudes and private thoughts of a public figure who was a wife and mother as well as a professional.  Except for a diary or journal written in French and German documenting her European tour of 1888-1890, Terrell kept diaries sporadically.  A fuller autobiographical source is the draft material to her published life story, A Colored Woman in a White World.

Prominent correspondents include Jane Addams, Mary McLeod Bethune, Benjamin Brawley, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Carrie Chapman Catt, Oscar DePriest, W. E. B. DuBois, Christian A. Fleetwood, Francis Jackson Garrison, W. C. Handy, Ida Husted Harper, Addie W. Hunton, Maude White Katz, Eugene Meyer, William L. Patterson, A. Philip Randolph, Jeannette Rankin, Hailie Selassie, Annie Stein, Anson Phelps Stokes, William Monroe Trotter, Oswald Garrison Villard, Booker T. Washington and Margaret James Murray Washington, H. G. Wells, and Carter G. Woodson. 

A finding aid (PDF and HTML) to the Mary Church Terrell is available online with links to the digital content on this site.  Within that finding aid, there is a partial index (PDF) to the names of individuals represented in the Correspondence series.

The collection is arranged in eight series:

  • Diaries, 1888-1951
    Diaries written in French and German during Terrell's stay in Europe, 1888-1890, and later kept in English.  Arranged chronologically.
  • Appointment Calendars and Address Book, 1904-1954
    Arranged by type of material and therein chronologically.
  • Family Correspondence, 1890-1955
    Correspondence with family members.  Arranged alphabetically by first name of family member.
  • Correspondence, 1886-1954
    Letters received, including numerous attachments, with some drafts or copies of letters sent.  Arranged chronology.  A partial name index (PDF) is available.
  • Subject File, 1884-1962
    Minutes, reports, notes, pamphlets, financial statements, news releases, and miscellaneous printed and near-print material.  Arranged alphabetically by name of organization or subject.
  • Speeches and Writings, 1866-1953
    Holograph and typescript copies of essays, speeches, articles, poems, and short stories.  Arranged chronologically when dated and otherwise alphabetically by type or title of material.  Includes drafts of her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, and printed copies of some of her writings arranged chronologically.
  • Miscellany, 1851-1954
    Calling cards, greeting cards, programs, bound volumes, clippings, and other printed matter.  Arranged by type of material.
  • Oversize, 1906
    Oversize clipping.  Arranged and described according to the series, container, and folder from which it was removed.  Filmed in its original location.