Catherine Chimley – Different Women, Distinct Voices: Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells were Black political activists in the late 19thand early 20thcenturies. Although there is a temptation in historical analysis to equate their respective actions and views due to their similar roles as Black women, Terrell and Wells had distinct ideals and tactics based upon their backgrounds and viewpoints. Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, to the first Black millionaire in the South. Her parents, both formerly enslaved, built and owned successful small businesses, providing Terrell and her siblings with advantages unavailable to most African Americans during the era. Terrell attended Oberlin College, following the “Gentleman’s Path” of four years of courses rather than the abbreviated course load designated for women. She obtained a master’s degree from Oberlin and became a professor of language at Wilberforce University. She married a lawyer who became the first Black municipal court judge and continued her role in activism following her marriage, encouraged by fellow activist Frederick Douglass. Terrell had connections with the African Methodist Episcopal Church and worked with religious organizations on educational reform and charitable institutions created by African American people for those in need. The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was developed in response to discrimination from the Methodist Church, which required Black members to sit in a separate gallery and did not allow Black priests to minister to white congregations. Using the Methodist tenets of respect for others, Terrell advocated for the rights of African American people and women, as well as an end to racially-motivated violence and discrimination. Terrell was a charter member of the NAACP and an active member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, working closely with Susan B. Anthony. Terrell also became the first Black member of the American Association of University Women. Her activism was tied with her ability to “pass” for white due to her mixed ancestry, and she utilized this characteristic to connect and transcend Black and white feminist groups.

         Ida B. Wells was an activist, journalist, and researcher who was born into slavery in Mississippi. Her parents became politically active during the Reconstruction Era, and she was able to attend Rust College for a period of time prior to her expulsion due to rebellious behavior and a confrontation with the college president. While visiting her grandmother, Wells received the news that a yellow fever epidemic had killed her parents and infant brother. Although family and friends felt that Wells’s remaining siblings should be divided between a variety of foster homes, then-sixteen year old Wells insisted that the children remain together as a family. Wells took a job as a teacher to support her siblings, moving to Memphis, TN in order to receive higher pay. Wells continued to teach in Memphis until she was fired by the Memphis School Board for an article written on insufficiencies of Black schools in the region. Memphis impacted her activism after a friend was lynched in 1892 and her expose on the horrors of racially-motivated terrorism prompted death threats that forced her to leave Memphis for Chicago. Wells worked with a variety of organizations as an activist, but was frequently considered a “perennial outsider” due to her refusal to compromise her beliefs. Wells was often ridiculed and ostracized by women’s suffrage organizations, specifically due to her dispute with Frances Willard of the majority-white Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Wells decried Willard’s rhetoric surrounding Black people and her description of Black communities as “the colored race multiplies like the locusts of Egypt..the grog shop is the center of its power.” Despite controversy with Christian organizations, Wells often connected her arguments with Christian parables against violence and the importance of respect for others.

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