April 25, 2014

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Black History Month has roots in Oberlin


As we celebrate Black History Month, historians say we should thank Mary Church Terrell, a pioneering black leader who graduated from Oberlin College in 1884 and was active in civil rights until her death in 1954 at the age of 90.

Terrell’s friend, Carter G. Woodson, generally gets most of the credit for founding Negro Achievement Week, which led to Black History Month, said Lenworth Gunther, a retired professor now living in New Jersey.

But it was Terrell and her sorority that began it all by honoring Abraham Lincoln on his birthday, Feb. 12, and Frederick Douglas on his birthday, Feb. 14, said Gunther, who lectures on Woodson and Terrell.

“She was involved in civil rights her entire life,” said Gunther, who holds a doctorate in black history from Columbia University. “Mary Church Terrell will go in history as one of the greatest advocates of civil liberties and women’s rights in history.”

Carol Lasser, who heads the history department at Oberlin College, said Terrell is well-loved on the Oberlin campus.

“She not only helped inspire Black History Month but remained an advocate of civil rights her entire life,” Lasser said. “She’s always been one of my heroes.”

Terrell was born in 1863, the daughter of former slaves. Her father, Robert Reed Church, became one of the south’s first millionaires.

Lasser said Terrell graduated from Oberlin College in 1884 along with two other pioneering black women, Anna Julia Cooper and Ida Gibbs Hunt.

“On campus they called them the Three Musketeers,” Lasser said.

Cooper earned a doctorate from the University of Paris and wrote the 1892 collection of essays “A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South,” while Gibbs Hunt was a civil rights leader and co-chair along with W.E.B. DuBois of the second Pan-African Congress.

Terrell was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded the Colored Women’s League and became the first president of the National Association of Colored Women.

She was the first African-American on the District of Columbia school board, serving from 1895 to 1919, and her husband, Robert Terrell, was the first black judge on the D.C. Municipal Court. Their turn-of-the-century home spurred integration in the D.C. neighborhood of LeDroit Park and is on the tour of the D.C. Preservation League, said Rebecca Miller of the league.

She was a popular lecturer and wrote many articles denouncing segregation.

When Terrell returned to the Oberlin campus with her daughters in the early 1900s, “she was disappointed that Oberlin was more segregated in the ’teens than it had been in the 1880s,” Lasser said.

Terrell was president of the Women’s Republican League in 1920 and — at Oberlin College’s centennial in 1933 — she was recognized as one of the college’s top 100 outstanding alumni.

At the age of 86, Terrell led the successful fight to integrate restaurants in the District of Columbia, and she died two months after the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, which held unconstitutional the segregation of schools by race.

Lasser said Black History Month — during which there are a variety of events scheduled around the county — remains important because “race in America is very critical.”

“How can we not remember in 2008 that we’re celebrating the first African-American man running for president?” she said.

Contact Cindy Leise at 329-7245 or cleise@chroniclet.com.