Mary Eliza Church was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 23, 1863. Her father, Robert Reed Church, was a formerly enslaved businessman who became the first African American millionaire in the South, and her mother, Louisa Ayres, was a hair dresser. She received an exceptional education, attending Oberlin College in Ohio and earning a bachelor's degree in classical languages. Against her father's wishes she took a teaching position at a college in Ohio in 1885. She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1887, where she continued to teach. She spent two years studying in Europe and in 1891 married Robert Herberton Terrell, also a teacher in Washington. They had four children, one of whom survived infancy. In 1905 they adopted Mary Terrell's niece. In 1910, Robert Terrell became the first African American to be nominated by an American president to a judgeship, serving on the Municipal Court of the District of Columbia until his death in 1925.
Because married women were not allowed to remain in the classroom in Washington, Terrell resigned from her teaching position, but she was not satisfied with a purely domestic life. After hearing of the lynching death of a childhood friend, Terrell began advocating against lynching and soon became a committed social activist. In 1892 she helped found the Colored Women's League in Washington, and four years later she founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), a federation of similar organizations. She was the president of NACW for the organization's first five years and became the nation's leading spokeswomen for African American women, advocating for enfranchisement, equal rights and economic opportunities, and an end to racial violence. A renowned speaker, she addressed groups in the United States and overseas advocating for gender and racial equality.
The first African American woman to serve on the Washington, D.C., Board of Education, she worked tirelessly to better the standards for students and teachers in the city. She was also a prolific writer, usually denouncing racism and its effects on society, and her works were published in numerous national and local newspapers and journals. In 1940 her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, was published.
A member of many different advocacy organizations, Terrell was a charter member of the national branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and very active in the Republican Party. In the 1940s and 1950s, Terrell continued her work against racial discrimination. In the years before her death she aligned herself with the more militant groups, staging sit-ins, picketing, and boycotts. She died at her home in Maryland on July 24, 1954.
McKay, Nellie, ed. Mary Church Terrell's A Colored Woman in a White World. New York: G. K. Hall, 1996.
Jones, Beverly Washington. Quest for Equality: The Life of Mary Eliza Church Terrell, 1863–1954. New York: Carlson Publishing, 1990.