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  • The French and Swiss Diaries of Mary Church Terrell, 1888–89Introduction and Annotated Translation
  • Jennifer M. Wilks (bio)

In every diary that I have kept, the yearning to express my thoughts on the printed page and the poignant regret that I could not do so run like a Jeremiad from the first day of the year to the last.

—Mary Church Terrell, A Colored Woman in a White World1

The life of Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954) was one full of firsts. Her father, Robert Reed Church, was known as “the first black millionaire in the South”; Terrell became the first African American woman appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education in 1895, and in 1896 she was elected as the inaugural president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), which consolidated the black women’s club movement into a single organization.2 It is thanks to her pioneering work as an educator and activist that Terrell is known to African American, women’s, and U.S. history. Her relevance to literary history, however, is less studied, perhaps because Terrell’s remarkable political accomplishments so well hid one of her great disappointments: her unrealized goal of becoming a successful creative writer.

The translation that follows seeks to reveal this literary desire and frustration by shifting scholarly focus from Mary Church Terrell, noted trailblazer, to Mary Eliza Church, aspiring writer. As an undergraduate at Oberlin College [End Page 8] (1880–84), Church served as freshman class poet, joined Aelioian, a women’s literary society, and edited the Oberlin Review. If these first steps toward pursuing a writing career are acknowledged in her autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World, published by a vanity press in 1940, her efforts to do so between college and her rise to national prominence are most candidly and carefully recorded in the diaries that she kept during a two-year stay in Europe.

On July 21, 1888, Church and her father sailed from New York on the RMS City of Berlin to begin a grand tour during which they visited London, Antwerp, Brussels, Cologne, Frankfurt, Strasbourg, and Paris. Their escorted expeditions included carriage drives around major cities, steamer trips on scenic rivers, and train rides between destinations. Father and daughter enjoyed themselves immensely; it was with trepidation on the part of the former and excitement on the part of the latter that Robert Church left his daughter in Paris on August 20.3 The next day he set sail for the United States while his daughter remained to study in France, Switzerland, and Germany. One week later, she began keeping a diary, her first, in French.

Between August 26, 1888 and February 3, 1889, Mary Church penned forty-eight entries ranging from brief comments on the day’s activities to extended discussions of her writing and her awareness of the responsibility that accompanied her socioeconomic privilege. The voice that emerges is youthful, passionate, and at times quite eloquent, a significant feat given that French was Church’s fifth language (in addition to studying German from childhood on, she mastered Greek and Latin while enrolled in the Classical Course at Oberlin). Its commingling of creative desire and political consciousness both echoes the work of nineteenth-century black women writers such as Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and foreshadows the activism that would form such an important part of Church’s later years. With their repeated references to correspondence to and from “R.H.T.,” the entries also provide a glimpse into their author’s personal desire. The bearer of those initials was Robert Heberton Terrell, the Harvard graduate who was the pride of Washington, D.C.’s black society and Church’s colleague at the city’s M Street High School. The result is an intimate portrait of a young woman who, in the midst of one remarkable experience, senses that she is on the cusp of still greater change. This impression is reflected in her penultimate French-language entry, which concludes with the question “Que deviendrai-je?” (What will I become?).4 Church resumed her journal on September 22, 1889 from Berlin, where she began writing in German. She remained in...


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pp. 8-32
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