Born into wealth in Memphis—her father, Robert Church, was the South’s first black millionaire—Mary Church had earned two degrees from Oberlin by 1888. She moved to Washington to teach at the M Street High School, founded after the Civil War as the nation’s first high school for African Americans, and that’s where she met Robert Heberton Terrell, another teacher. They wed in 1891.
One year later, the lynching of a close Memphis friend turned her into an activist. Incensed at the lack of response by Congress or the Harrison administration, Mary Terrell founded the Colored Women’s League to take on the issue. She went on to co-found the National Association of Colored Women, becoming its first president, and in 1909 co-signed the charter establishing the NAACP. She also joined the woman suffrage movement, despite African Americans’ often being pushed to the sidelines.
For his part, Robert Terrell, also outspoken on racial issues, was appointed D.C.'s first black judge in 1902. He died in 1925.
In 1948, a report by the National Committee on Segregation in the Nation’s Capital, Segregation in Washington, described 19th century anti-discrimination laws that had mysteriously disappeared off the books in the early 1900s. With the aim of testing these laws, Mary Terrell and other activists organized the multi-racial Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws.
On February 28, 1950, she and three colleagues went for lunch at Thompson’s Restaurant, a whites-only cafeteria at 725 14th Street. When the two African Americans in the party were refused service, the Coordinating Committee persuaded the city to sue Thompson’s. The case, District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc., advanced to the Supreme Court, which on June 8, 1953, ruled that the “lost laws” were still valid. At age 89, Terrell celebrated the end of legal segregation of public accommodations in Washington. She also lived long enough to see the end of legal school segregation in the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of May 17, 1954.