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Chapter Five BLACK FEMINIST CONSCIOUSNESS, RACE CONSCIOUSNESS, AND BLACK POLITICAL BEHAVIOR A white woman has only one handicap to overcome—a great one, true, her sex. A colored woman faces two—her sex and her race. A colored man has only one—that of race. —Mary Church Terrell, A Colored Woman in a White World In 1863, Mary Church Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee. Both of her parents were former slaves; however, neither one experienced the hardships of plantation life (Sterling 1979). Her father, Robert Church, was considered the richest black man in Memphis and perhaps the first black millionaire in the South. He secured his wealth at a time when the yellow fever epidemic plagued the residents of Memphis and many of them abandoned their homes. Robert Church purchased much of the property they left behind and pursued several business ventures, including a beauty parlor, a barbershop, and a saloon (B. Jones 1990). Mary’s mother, Louisa, owned and operated a hair salon where only the wealthiest women had their beauty needs met. Despite her parents’ wealth, however, Mary did not live in isolation from the world and experienced racial prejudice at an early age. While on a trip with her father aboard a railroad train, she was humiliated by the conductor. Before retiring to the smoker for a cigar, Robert Church seated his five-year-old daughter in the firstclass coach. Mary, who was neatly dressed and on her best behavior, 93 was startled when the conductor asked, “Whose little nigger is this?” and insisted that she be seated in the Jim Crow car. Frightened , Mary stood in the aisle (Sterling 1979, 123). Her father, who was fair enough to pass for white, ordered that the conductor leave his child alone. The man reluctantly obeyed this command, but continued to glare at the little girl for the remainder of the trip. This event and the experiences that followed it made Mary ever so aware of black–white relations. Thus, to fully appreciate the historic significance of Mary Church Terrell, it is necessary to understand the degree to which her consciousness emerged out of and transformed everyday life experiences with interlocking systems of oppression into formidable acts of resistance. Rather than attend the segregated schools in Memphis, Mary’s parents sent her to an integrated “model school” on the campus of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Once she got older, she attended Oberlin College where she received a bachelor of arts degree in 1884. After graduation she taught the basics of reading and writing at Wilberforce University in Ohio—the first American institution of higher learning for blacks—and later, she moved to Washington , D.C., to teach Latin at the Preparatory School for Colored Youth. While teaching at the Colored High School, Mary completed requirements for the master of arts degree for Oberlin College in 1888. She then traveled to Europe where she spent two years learning French, German, and Italian. By 1891, Mary had returned to the United States and married Robert Terrell—the first black person to graduate from Harvard University. Certainly one of the most articulate and best educated black women in the late nineteenth century, Mary Church Terrell rejected traditional roles for women. She abandoned the purely domestic sphere and exhibited a great deal of independence through her travels abroad, educational experiences, and issue advocacy networks. Determined to make her life both useful and meaningful , Terrell became a prominent figure central in the women’s club movement and its leading organization the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). One of the founders and the first president of the NACW, Terrell made the elevation of the race her primary goal. While the NACW aided primarily black women and children, Terrell maintained that the organization reached the “source of many race 94 Black Feminist Voices in Politics problems” by supporting black family life (Jones 1990, 24). Kindergartens and day-care nurseries were established to provide much needed services to working mothers. Both “Mothers’ Clubs” and “Homes for Girls” were created to dispense knowledge about the best methods for child rearing, conducting homes, and improving moral standards. They offered classes in domestic arts and served as employment bureaus for girls who found themselves excluded from the YMCA and similar white organizations (hooks 1981; Jones 1990; D. White 1999). By 1901, the NACW had become one of the most viable women’s associations in the United States. The programs and objectives of the organization were advertised...


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