Bold, Black and Brilliant: Mary Church Terrell Risked Death for Social Change

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Historical markers around the Mid-South sometimes honor a person who did one great thing. But one Memphis native honored with a new historical marker is considered several Levels Up above her peers for a range of great things. And she made them happen during a time when being a woman, bold and black could get you hanged.

Mary Church Terrell was a boss-lady in the current day sense of the word even though she lived during the age of segregation and before women could vote.

Born in Memphis in 1863, she was one of the first African American women in America to earn a college degree. She attended Oberlin College in Ohio.

Her parents, Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers were former slaves. Robert, a small business owner, became the first black millionaire in Memphis. His office was located on Beale Street not far from where Terrell’s historical marker now stands.

Terrell was an advocate for women’s right to vote and a charter member of the NAACP. Her work as an advocate for the education of black children lead to her appointment as the first African American woman appointed to a school board.

She lived to fight for and see powerful changes in Civil Rights. Mary Church Terrell died in 1954, two months after the U. S. Supreme court struck down segregation in schools under Brown v. Board of Education.