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The Progress of Colored Women


An 1898 speech by Mary Church Terrell at the National American Woman Suffrage Association convention in Washington, DC. Digitized by the Antislavery Literature Project.




Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954), born in Memphis, Tennessee, was an African American educator, political and community organizer, and civil rights leader for gender and racial equality. For her autobiography, see A Colored Woman in a White World, introduction by Nellie Y. McKay (New York: G.K. Hall, 1996; originally published in Washington, DC: Ransdell, 1940). For a biography, see Beverly Washington Jones, Quest for Equality: The Life and Writings of Mary Eliza Church Terrell (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1990). 

Mary Terrell’s career represents an outstanding example of the link between antebellum abolitionism and the mid-twentieth century Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Originally urged into civic activism and then supported by Frederick Douglass, Terrell went on to become an educator within the African American community in the District of Columbia, an anti-lynching campaigner, a suffragist, temperance activist, the founder of the National Association of Colored Women, joined the founding group of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and played many other civic roles. Her writing makes frequent reference to abolitionist figures as having created the historical background from which such multi-directional civic activism emerged. 

The present text, was given as an 1898 address to the National American Woman Suffrage Association, whose founding and then-president, Susan B. Anthony, began her political career as an antislavery and temperance speaker and later worked as an agent of William Lloyd Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society

Terrell begins her speech by invoking the double association of women’s suffrage and the antislavery movement, citing women abolitionists such as Ernestine Rose, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony. (7) The position of black women under slavery was especially bad. Some fifty years prior, she writes, “Nothing …that could degrade or brutalize the womanhood of the race was lacking in that system from which colored women had little hope of escape.” (7) Looking at the subsequent progress of black women, however, she cites similar expression by Douglass to suggest that “if judged by the depths from which they have come, rather than by the heights to which those blessed with centuries of opportunity have attained, colored women need not hang their heads in shame.” (8) She notes especially the efforts that black women have made to obtain education, as well as the obstacles they encountered translating that education into well-paying livelihoods. Terrell shared Douglass’ balance of critical perspective on the current state of African America and US race relations with an optimistic regard towards its progress and future.

In the remainder of her speech Terrell reviews educational initiatives that have benefitted African American women. She concludes “Seeking no favors because of our color, nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice, asking an equal chance.” (15)

It may be noted that little attention has been paid to Terrell’s work as a fiction-writer, most of which remains unpublished. See Elizabeth McHenry, “Toward a History of Access: The Career of Mary Church Terrell,” American Literary History 19 (Summer 2007) 2: 381-401.   


- Joe Lockard