As the 19th century unfolded a different population of African Americans were born into the world. This population would be born in the South but not experience the South in its full oppressive glory. That is to say, there was a new emerging population of millions of African Americans who were to be born in the South but would be born free. Mary Church Terrell is one such individual, born free in the South, during the Civil War. Though the Emancipation Proclamation had not yet been signed upon her birth (1863), by the time she was mastering the ability to walk and talk the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments had been signed and put into law. Terrell would be born free to free parents and raised free, knowing little of the horrors her parents endured. She instead would have navigate through different and evolving world and have to deal with an entirely new set of difficulties and dangers in white America.
Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee; her mother, Louisa Ayers Church, was born free but her father, Robert Reed Church, was born into bondage but was later freed well before the birth of his daughter. The Church family were relatively well off, Louisa was popular dress maker and property owner in Memphis, and Robert was self-educated and did well with real estate in the city making him one of the most successful Black business men in the country. However, being Black and successful does not grant an immunity to the pitfalls of white supremacy. Throughout Terrell’s early life she saw and experienced the costs of being Black in America despite her family having a generous measure of financial success. Nonetheless, no matter how well-off they were, they were still Black in the very hostile American South during the postbellum period, a period in which the country saw the growth of white terrorism with the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.
Terrell’s education went through Oberlin College where she studied the Classics. At Oberlin, she excelled as a writer and as a leader. During this time period women were only expected to complete two-years of college, however Terrell completed what was referred to as the “gentlemen’s path” which was simply a full four years of college. In college, she was very active among the student body. She was not shy in addressing issues relevant to race and gender. For example, “in one college paper she urges women to devote some time to their own self-culture and study rather than permit ‘household cares’ to absorb their minds. This line of thinking, popular among late-nineteenth-century women reformers, was the basis for the formation of hundreds of women’s self-culture and reading clubs.” She also, continued her graduate work at Oberlin, completing a degree in Education. Education was extremely important for her, believing it the only way for African Americans in general and African American women in particular to truly progress in American society. Eventually, because of this dynamic and her tireless work, Terrell was elected to the District of Columbia Board of Education where she was able to service African Americans of the capital district.
As Terrell grew as an activist she spoke often at women’s conferences and conventions. As such, she worked closely with white women in the suffrage movement and the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Susan B. Anthony was one personality in particular that Terrell found a measure of cohesion. The NAWSA was primarily focused on the problems of White women, however driven Black women such as Terrell and Sojourner Truth made it their business to bring the issues of Black women particularly and African Americans in general to the table. But, the organization was not interested in directly addressing the issues of Black people or Black women evidenced by the fact that Black women were not allowed to organized their own wing of the NAWSA, though it was more than happy use the voices as Black women to further their own cause. Be that as it may, Terrell and her cultural contemporaries were not to be denied. They used their platform to speak on the need for unity amongst African Americans and the importance of elevating the voices of women in the struggle for freedom.
Being denied philosophical space in the NAMSA lead to the formation of the Color Women’s League founded by Terrell, Helen Appo Cook, Ida B. Bailey, Anna Julie Cooper, Charlotte Forten Grimke, Mary Jane Peterson and Evelyn Shaw. The organization of Black Women in the Color Women’s League was one of the more important steps in the Black women Club Movement, a movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century that sought to address the social ills of African Americans through the development of self-help programs and organizations. Further, the Black Women’s Club Movement was primarily focused on the upliftment of the race, not just through self-help but as well by attacking the racial plagues of the era such as segregation and lynching. However, one of the major differences between the Black women’s club movement and white women’s suffrage movement was an emphasis on male involvement and cooperation. In the DC area in particular, “their efforts to inform the public about the moral and social progress of the black race, the members of this pioneering women’s group initiated a number of practical measures to benefit the Washington black community, ranging from an evening school for adults to mothers’ meetings and day nurseries for the children with working mothers.” Across the board, the Black women’s movement was meant to be more community based rather than simply gender based, Black families were to work together to deal with social ills, it was not all on the women.
Though it is clear that Terrell understood the dynamics of race and racism in America, she was still focused on classism as an important issue. To elaborate, with the emancipation of enslaved Africans came a class consciousness that would prove to be both uplifting and problematic in the coming decades. The divide being developed between the black upper and lower class, as a product of freedom, would become a barrier to those still scratching and surviving in America’s underbelly. Harley elaborates, “Despite the progressive views expressed throughout her active public life, Terrell epitomized black upper-middle-class leadership and seldom appeared among the black masses except in church gatherings.”As well, there was a particular alliance (or reliance) on Victorianism as a philosophy to be embraced as African Americans attempted to blend in to the larger American society. This approach was very problematic for many African Americans who had no interesting in embracing European social ethics but were instead looking for philosophies that were more culturally relevant.
It is no exaggeration that Terrell’s legacy helped to lay the foundation for social activism in the 20th century. For one, she helped to set the stage for African American Feminist/Womanist discussion in an international setting. As well, with Ida B. Wells she was one of the first women to organize and call for the meetings that would become the foundation for the National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP). In addition, during the early part of the 20th century, African Americans were organizing themselves not only into community and self-help organization but in fraternal organizations as well. As such, she helped to develop Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated, a college based African American women only organization centered on mutual support and community service. Throughout her life, Terrell was deeply involvement in all aspects of African American political and social life, helping to lay the groundwork for how the rights of African Americans and women would be discussed in the 20th century.
 Sharon Harley. “Mary Church Terrell: Genteel Militant.” Leon Litwack and August Meier, eds. Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 307.
 Her attendance of Oberlin College was historic in that she was the first African American woman to attend the institution.
 It also should be noted that she graduated with Anna Julia Cooper and Ida Gibbs Hunt, who themselves are giants in their fields.
 Sharon Harley. “Mary Church Terrell: Genteel Militant.” Leon Litwack and August Meier, eds. Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 308.
 Ibid., 316.
 Mary Church Terrell. A Colored Woman In A White World. (Washington, D.C: Humanity Books, 1940), 185.
 Paula Giddings. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. (New York: William Morrow and Company, INC., 1984), 127.
 Smith, Jessie Carney. "Josephine Beall Bruce". Notable Black American women (v1 ed.). (Gale Research Inc., 1992), 123.
 Sharon Harley. “Mary Church Terrell: Genteel Militant.” Leon Litwack and August Meier, eds. Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century. (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 311.
 Ibid., 320.
 This point will become more apparent in the early part of the 20th century.