February was Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month. So, for the first installment of our blog series, we’re throwing back to Mary Church-Terrell, one of the most well-known civil rights activists of the early twentieth century. As a founding member of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Colored Women’s League of Washington, her contributions to women’s rights and racial equality are unparalleled.
Yet a major component of her activism, which is scarcely discussed, was her incredible contribution to the international peace movement, especially during World War I.
Church-Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1863. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degree at Oberlin College. In 1884, she became one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree. After she married Robert Terrell in 1891, she moved to Washington D.C., where her political career took off.
Church-Terrell became involved in the women’s rights movement, and focused on the issue of women’s suffrage. Unsurprisingly, Terrell found that within this movement there was significant exclusion and erasure of African-American women. In response, she became president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which allowed her to combine her goals of suffrage and civil rights.
Similarly, she offered a distinctly intersectional approach as a peace activist. Church-Terrell was a board member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and spoke on behalf of them at the International Women’s Congress in Berlin in 1904 and the 1919 International Women’s Congress in Zurich. In Berlin, she was the only African-American woman to attend, and received a standing ovation after speaking. Fifteen years later in Zurich, she argued against imperialism and colonialism within the peace movement, stating “You may talk about permanent peace till doomsday, but the world will never have it until the dark races in the world are given a square deal.” It was exceedingly rare for non-white women to have high ranking positions within national peace movements, and even rarer to have the chance to speak about racial issues at global peace conferences.
As an board member of WILPF, Church-Terrell also worked to address racial inequalities within the league. In 1921, a german propaganda poster accused black soldiers of sexual exploitation of German women. When WILPF drafted a petition to remove these soldiers from duty, Church-Terrell refused to sign and even threatened to leave WILPF, as she felt that the propaganda had perpetuated negative and incorrect racial stereotypes. Due to her appeal for racial justice, the petition never moved forward.
African-American women were involved in peace activism during the First World War, but were often made invisible by white women within these movements. Nevertheless, Church-Terrell ensured her voice was heard, and, in turn, amplified the voices of those who were marginalized. She refused to accept global peace initiatives without racial equality and showed that women of color were crucial in negotiating peace within the international arena. Church-Terrell continued her activism in support of African-American women throughout the rest of her life and lived just long enough to see the historic Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.
This is the first blog in the Pioneers of Policy and Peace series for Women's History Month.