The Black Woman Who Led the Fight Against Jim Crow – And Why No One Has Ever Heard of Her

Written by: Joan Quigley
Excerpt: In his first inaugural address, on January 20, 2009, President Barack Obama, highlighting how far the nation and Washington DC had come, described himself as someone “whose father, less than sixty years ago, might not have been served at a local restaurant.” But he failed to mention the black woman who was responsible for desegregating Washington DC’s restaurants in 1953, a year before Brown v. Board of Education.
On January 27, 1950, 86-year-old Mary Church Terrell had walked into Thompson’s Restaurant, a cafeteria located a few blocks from the White House. The manager refused to serve her and two African American activists who had gone with her, the Rev. William H. Jernagin, pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church, and Geneva Brown, the secretary-treasurer of the United Cafeteria and Restaurant Workers Union. The manager’s reason? They were “colored.”
“Do you mean to tell me that you are not going to serve me?” Terrell asked.
The manager apologized. It was not his fault, he said. It was his company’s policy not to serve Negroes.
Terrell and her colleagues had expected that answer, and they enlisted two lawyers to help them challenge Thompson’s for violating Reconstruction-era anti-discrimination ordinances that banned Washington restaurants from discriminating by race. The laws had languished on the books for decades, not enforced and never repealed. And because the laws made it a misdemeanor for restaurants to discriminate against customers by race, Terrell and her colleagues needed the help of local prosecutors, who had long shown little interest in enforcing the ordinances and prosecuting restaurants for refusing to serve blacks.
Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in Terrell’s case, District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc. In an opinion by Justice William O. Douglas, the Court invalidated restaurant segregation in the nation’s capital, upholding the Reconstruction-era prohibition against race discrimination. From that date, Obama’s father could have been served at a local restaurant. That decision set the stage for Brown v. Board of Education and for a decade of civil rights struggles that eventually granted the country’s African-Americans full civil rights.
Mary Church Terrell, who initiated the test case, had been the most prominent woman in the civil rights movement for over fifty years. An Oberlin College graduate and the daughter of former slaves, she was once known as the female Booker T. Washington. She was also a militant feminist, a founder of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. In 1904, she gave remarks in English, German and French at the International Congress of Women in Berlin. That same year, Lewis Douglass, the oldest son of Frederick Douglass, called her “the greatest woman that we have.” After World War II, she was a very early leader of the campaign against racial segregation in public accommodations.


More about Mary Church Terrell:

Terrell soon demonstrated that she would never be content with wealth and privilege alone. In 1892, she received horrifying news from Memphis: a childhood friend of hers, Thomas Moss, along with two of his friends, had been lynched. The murder, committed by a white mob during a melee instigated by one of Moss’ rivals in the grocery business, went unpunished. Terrell joined Frederick Douglass in asking for a meeting with President Benjamin Harrison. President Harrison was well aware of what Terrell and Douglass wanted: a statement condemning lynching. But like most politicians of the time, he was unwilling to face the political consequences and refused the meeting.
Moss’ murder and Harrison’s refusal to act ignited a fire in Terrell that led to direct action. In 1896, she helped found the Washington Colored Women’s League to give African American women financial assistance, offer the opportunity to improve social skills, and address issues such as segregation, bars to voting, economic inequality, and lynching. The League soon merged with other organizations to form the National Association of Colored Women, or NACW, with Terrell assuming the role of president. With the NACW as her forum, Terrell began traveling from one end of the country to the other, developing a national reputation as a dynamic and inspirational public speaker. In Washington, DC, Terrell became the first African American to serve on a school board, holding office between 1895 and 1911. When the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was founded in 1909, she was present as a charter member.
Terrell continued her work as an advocate for women and African Americans during the decades that followed. She lectured against discrimination in both America and Europe, and wrote countless articles and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, including The North American Review, The Independent, and The Boston Herald. In 1940, she published a widely read autobiography under the title A Colored Woman in a White World. At age 80, Terrell was as staunch an activist as ever. Remaining outspoken into the years following World War II, she enthusiastically embraced the boycotts, marches, and sit-ins of a new generation of activists dedicated to ending segregation and discrimination. Cane in hand, she led picketing campaigns against restaurants that excluded African Americans, and instigated a groundbreaking legal challenge to the practice when she was almost 90 years old. The challenge led to a decision in 1953 that segregated public facilities in the nation’s capital, previously sanctioned under laws passed in the aftermath of the Civil War, were illegal.
The following year, in May 1954, Terrell’s life’s work, which had begun seven decades before, found its culmination in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in the nation’s public schools. Terrell lived just long enough to savor this historic victory. She died on July 24, 1954, but is remembered for her legacy of academic achievement, eloquent writing, and tireless activism.




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