Rachael Devecka: Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells

Mary Church Terrell:


  • Black and women’s issues activist
  • 19th – 20th century
    • (The two women were contemporaries)
  • Parents were formerly enslaved → business owners (father was early black millionaire)
    • Divorced
  • Went to Oberlin College
    • Master’s degree
  • Taught at Wilberforce College
  • Her friend Thomas Moss was lynched, inspiring her activism
    • Worked with Ida B. Wells on anti-lynching
  • Helped found National Association of Colored Women in 1896, was president until 1901
  • Published autobiography “A Colored Woman in a White World”
  • First black member of American Association of University Women
  • Protested segregation in eating places


  • Not sure what her religion was personally, but she attended and worked at Christian institutions (Presbyterian and Methodist, respectively) and wrote for Christian newspapers


  • Came from a religious household

Ida B. Wells:


  • Journalist, researcher, activist who “battled sexism, racism, and violence”
  • 19th – 20th century
    • (The two women were contemporaries)
  • Born into slavery
  • Parents politically active in Reconstruction
  • Orphaned in Yellow Fever epidemic, cared for younger siblings
  • “In 1884, Wells-Barnett filed a lawsuit against a train car company in Memphis for unfair treatment. She had been thrown off a first-class train, despite having a ticket.”
    • Won at local level! *lost federally*
  • After lynching of friend, she focused on anti-lynching activism
    • Investigating and writing
      • “Her expose about an 1892 lynching enraged locals, who burned her press and drove her from Memphis.”
    • Teaching internationally
  • Boycotting World’s Columbian Exposition in 1983 for negatively portraying and excluding black community
  • Helped found National Association of Colored Women’s Club
  • Focused on Urban reform later


  • Christian
    • “‘I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people. … O God, is there no … justice in this land for us?’”

Violence and Common Roots:

Both Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell fought specifically against lynching, sexism, and racial violence. In fact, the two women were contemporaries and worked together on an anti-lynching campaign. Each was galvanized to the issue by the lynching of a close friend. 

Another commonality Wells and Church shared was their fight for women’s and black rights in a more general form. For instance, the National Association of Colored Women’s Club (NACW), which they co-founded in 1896, provided a supportive space for women of color outside of the church and to advocate for racial and gender social justice issues. Both women were also talented writers who spread their work through the press.

Having the NACW designated explicitly as a space apart from the church is interesting, given both Church and Wells’ religious backgrounds. Church appears to have come from a fairly conservative Christian family, worked at religious institutions, and written for religious papers, yet she was the first president and co-founder of NACW. Wells, too, is reported to have been a deeply religious Christian. Christian values of justice, love, and kindness may have influenced their activism. One quote by Ida B. Wells, for instance, shows how her faith in God is tied to her faith in justice: “I felt so disappointed because I had hoped such great things from my suit for my people. … O God, is there no … justice in this land for us?”

This is interesting in light of what we learned last class about religious oppression, but it does not altogether surprise me. Christianity, in my experience, is interpreted very differently by different cultures. One example I’ve heard cited––you can agree with it or not––is that white people use Christianity to oppress and people of color use Christianity to liberate. I’m curious to find out what truth there is in that statement as we go through this unit.

Church’s piece focuses on the daily injustices of living in DC as well as the broader issues (such as lynching) and expresses how this causes people to lose hope. She calls out the United States for hypocrisy. She does not propose a solution and she does not focus especially on women in this piece.

Wells’ piece describes the side-by-side history of lynching and law, as well as lynching culture at the time. She provides statistics to debunk common excuses for lynching. One of her focuses is a critique of the opposite treatment of white women and women of color. White women are ‘precious’ and powerful, and it is on their behalf that most lynchings are supposedly carried out.

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