Mary Church Terrell
Civil Rights Activist and Suffragist
When Mary Church Terrell delivered her poignant speech, ‘What it Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States’, before a women’s club in Washington, D.C., in 1906, she drew attention to the gap between American ideals of freedom and liberty and the harsh realities of Jim Crow laws. As an African-American woman in 1906, Terrell could not eat in the same restaurants, ride in the same car or stay in the same hotels as the white citizens of her city. ‘As a colored woman I might enter Washington any night, a stranger in a strange land, and walk miles without finding a place to lay my head,’ she told her audience.
At the time of her speech, Terrell had lived in Washington for over a decade, working as a language teacher and rising to a position on the District of Columbia Board of Education. Highly educated – she obtained a master’s degree from Oberlin College, Ohio, in 1888 – she dazzled audiences abroad by delivering her lectures in English, German and French. In 1896, she was elected the first president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Yet she remained dogged by deep-seated racism: ‘It matters not what my intellectual attainments may be or how great is the need of the services of a competent person, if I try to enter many of the numerous vocations in which my white sisters are allowed to engage, the door is shut in my face.’ In 1950, in her eighties, Terrell helped organize some of the first successful sit-ins to desegregate the capital’s restaurants. She lived just long enough to see the United States Supreme Court declare the racial segregation of public schools unconstitutional in 1954.
What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States 1906
Washington, D.C., has been called “The Colored Man’s Paradise.” Whether this sobriquet was given to the national capital in bitter irony by a member of the handicapped race, as he reviewed some of his own persecutions and rebuffs, or whether it was given immediately after the war by an ex-slaveholder who for the first time in his life saw colored people walking about like free men, minus the overseer and his whip, history saith not. It is certain that it would be difficult to find a worse misnomer for Washington than “The Colored Man’s Paradise” if so prosaic a consideration as veracity is to determine the appropriateness of a name.
… As a colored woman I may walk from the Capitol to the White House, ravenously hungry and abundantly supplied with money with which to purchase a meal, without finding a single restaurant in which I would be permitted to take a morsel of food, if it was patronized by white people, unless I were willing to sit behind a screen. As a colored woman I cannot visit the tomb of the Father of this country, which owes its very existence to the love of freedom in the human heart and which stands for equal opportunity to all, without being forced to sit in the Jim Crow section of an electric car which starts from the very heart of the city – midway between the Capitol and the White House. If I refuse thus to be humiliated, I am cast into jail and forced to pay a fine for violating the Virginia laws. Every hour in the day Jim Crow cars filled with colored people, many of whom are intelligent and well to do, enter and leave the national capital.
… It is impossible for any white person in the United States, no matter how sympathetic and broad, to realize what life would mean to him if his incentive to effort were suddenly snatched away. To the lack of incentive to effort, which is the awful shadow under which we live, may be traced the wreck and ruin of scores of colored youth. And surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep.
… the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded … and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep.
Mary Church Terrell