The Answer to Folks Dissing the Field of African American History….

June 8, 2012, 2:53 pm

Mary Church Terrell, @ 1940. Photo Credit: Tennessee State Library and Archives

….Is more African American history, of course. In the wake of Naomi Schaefer Riley’s ignorant and widely criticized blog post mocking young female scholars just beginning their work in this rich field, so many responses come to mind.

Riley, who seemed to have been genuinely surprised at how poorly the idea of closing African American Studies department was received, responds to her critics here and here.  In both pieces she seems to be arguing that having a political viewpoint about a field entitles you to criticize anything and everything about it, as if you had actually read the scholarship. She also suggests that, as a journalist who is not an academic, she should not be held to standards of accuracy when she reports on fields of knowledge that she admits she knows little or nothing about.

Very strange. Riley also disclosed information that will be surprising to many of us who blog at the Chron, which is that she was a paid contributor to Brainstorm. (I say “was” because, following this intellectual self-immolation, she was fired and hence is no longer paid. Question: can the CHE fire Tenured Radical if it doesn’t pay Tenured Radical? Enquiring minds want to know.)

As an antidote to Riley’s puzzlingly ill-conceived blog post, I would instead like to promote a greater awareness of African-American history.  Probably no one would be more enthusiastic about such a decision than my subject for today. An African-American woman whose life was devoted to education, racism and encouraging the young, I introduce you to reformer, activist and teacher Mary Church Terrell.

Terrell had a great many achievements to her credit, but one was the desegregation of public accommodations in the District of Columbia. Today is the anniversary of District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., the 1953 Supreme Court decision that resulted from a lawsuit originally filed by Terrell towards the end of her life.  One of the less well-known benchmarks of the Civil Rights movement, it was achieved by a group of activists who were neither the college students or the nonviolent activists we associate with major events like the March on Selma (1965) and the Freedom Riders (1961) movement. Perhaps the most prominent leader of the campaign to desegregate public space in the nation’s capital was the remarkable Mrs. Terrell who was 89 years old when the decision was handed down.  Born in 1863 to two former slaves, she would pass away in 1954, two months after the landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education would mandate desegregation of the District’s — and the nation’s —  schools.

Terrell knew everybody in what scholars now call the “long civil rights movement.” She was involved with nearly every issue that defined the struggle for black and female equality between Reconstruction and the post-war civil rights movement (what some have called “the second Reconstruction.”) One of the first African-American women to acquire a college degree, she was a leader of the Black club women’s movement, and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (see Paula Giddings’ classic, Where and When I Enter:  The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex In America, 1996, for a history of the women’s movement that includes this and many other critical organizations which Terrell helped to build.)

In 1950, when she was 86, Terrell was made honorary chairperson of the coordinating committee for the Enforcement of the D.C. Anti-Discrimination Law in Washington, D.C. But honorary was not her style. With other activists, she demanded service at restaurants where black citizens were sometimes permitted to purchase food, but not sit to eat it. They began with Thompson’s Cafeteria, two blocks from the White House, where the protest was likely to be seen by those who worked in the executive branch. Terrell and her comrades were refused service, and they sued, charging that racial segregation was actually illegal in the District.  According to this source:

The District of Columbia had on its books 1872 and 1873 laws prohibiting exclusion of African American people from restaurants, theaters, and other public places, although these statutes had never been enforced. In fact, they had been illegally deleted from the District Code in the 1890s. Terrell, not satisfied with being honorary chair, became the group’s working chairperson. She presided over meetings, spoke at rallies, and on January 7, 1950, led a group of four African American people to Thompson’s cafeteria, located two blocks from the White House. Terrell and her companions put soup on their trays and sat down to eat. They were asked to leave, prompting the committee to file a lawsuit charging the restaurant with violating their civil rights.

While the suit dragged through the courts, Terrell and her group met with restaurant and store owners trying to convince them to open their lunch counters to everyone. Some businesses complied, but many more remained closed to African Americans. Terrell encouraged boycotts and picketed the holdouts. For two years Terrell, now aged and stooped, led the picket line day after day, in all kinds of weather. In Black Foremothers: Three Lives, a younger picketer is quoted as recalling: “When my feet hurt I wasn’t going to let a women fifty years older than I do what I couldn’t do. I kept on picketing.” One by one, the restaurants gave in and on June 8, 1953, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Terrell’s favor.

The actual text of the case, in which the Court reversed a lower court decision,  is a fascinating history both of the history of segregation in the nation’s capital. It also gives insights into the governance of the District by Congress and how segregation was defended in the capitol by the powerful white southern segregationist Senators who chaired many of the key committees after World War II.

If the open source Internet encyclopedias to which several of my links lead you aren’t your bag, you may be out of luck in finding a full account of this activist’s life. Although Mary Church Terrell’s autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, is in print, and she plays a prominent role in many women’s political histories, I can’t find a full biography of her. However, your kid can read Patricia MacKissack’s Mary Church Terrell: Leader for Equality (2002).


This entry was posted in Activist Historian, history, Mary PLEASE, Political History, politics, Washington D.C.. Bookmark the permalink.