Both Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells were spurred into their most prominent eras of activism after a friend was lynched. Their activism took different forms – Terrell focused on racial uplift through education and community activism, while Wells focused on exposing and combating the racial violence in the south. Despite this difference in focus, Wells’ book Southern Horrors and Terrell’s work “What It Means to be Colored in the Capital of the United States” share similar themes. They each describe a type of racial violence that results from white mob mentality. The violence that Wells describes is physical, brutal, and barbarian, while Terrell describes social and verbal violence. In each case, the violence comes from the desire of white people to remain superior and flaunt their societal superiority.
Terrell campaigned for black women’s suffrage, and founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Wells similarly campaigned for black women’s suffrage, and openly confronted white women in the suffrage movement who ignored the lynching that terrorized black lives in the south. The focus on women is evident in their respective works. Wells’ book emphasizes how femeninity and lynching tied together: white people often excused lynching by saying they were “protecting their women,” while black women who experienced violence were not heard at all by the white community. Terrell uses multiple examples of black women being restricted from the privileges granted to white women. For instance, Terrell talks about an insistence on hiring nurses (who at the time were all female) who were white, since black nurses were not permitted in the same public spaces as white children.
Neither Terrell nor Wells offer a specific solution to racial discrimination. Wells emphasizes that people need to see and work to fix the “defect in our country’s armor” that permits racial violence. Terrell implies that legal discrimination in public spaces needs to be corrected in order to make progress.