Robert and Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954), famous for her leadership in the women's suffrage and civil rights movements, was also the first African-American woman appointed to the D.C. Board of Education. She began teaching foreign languages at M Street High School in 1885, and while there she met her husband, who taught Latin, math and science at M Street beginning in 1887. She was one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree - ever.
Terrell was the daughter of former mixed-race slaves who helped build the black elite in Memphis, Tennessee after the American Civil War. Her father Robert Reed Church became a wealthy business entrepreneur and was widely considered the first African-American millionaire in the South. Both of Mary Church's parents stressed education; when she was six years old, her parents sent her to the Antioch College Model School in Yellow Springs, Ohio, for her elementary and secondary education.
After she married in 1891, Mary Church Terrell gave up her teaching position, as was the expectation of women at that time (under "Rule 45" of the Board of Education), but that did not bar her from serving on the D.C. School Board for two terms, from 1895 to 1901, and from 1906 to 1911. It is believed she is the first African-American person to serve on a school board anywhere in the U.S.
Robert Terrell (1857-1925), the first African American judge in Washington, D.C., was born in Charlottesville, Virginia on November 27, 1857 to Harris and Louisa Ann Terrell. The Terrells, an upper-middle class American family, sent their son to public schools in the District of Columbia and then to Groton Academy in Groton, Massachusetts. In 1884, Robert Terrell graduated cum laude from Harvard University. Five years later he graduated from the Howard University Law School with an LL.B. In 1893 he attained his LL.M from Howard University Law School.
Because of the difficulty in getting a job as a black attorney in Washington, D.C., Terrell taught in the District’s public schools between 1884 and 18. He then worked as chief clerk in the office of the auditor of the U.S. Treasury.
Robert Terrell met Mary Church when she accepted a teaching post at the Preparatory School for Colored Youth in Washington, D.C., where he was principal. They married in October 1891.
From 1892 to 1898, Robert Terrell practiced law in Washington, D.C. but returned to teaching and became principal of M Street High School in Washington, D.C. Terrell, a staunch Republican, allied himself with Booker T. Washington in the first decade of the 20th century and through the latter’s influence with President William Howard Taft he was nominated by the President to serve on the District of Columbia Municipal Court. Despite bitter opposition to his appointment from Southern Democratic Senators, Terrell on January 15, 1910 became the first African American judge in the nation’s capital. Terrell served as judge until his death in 1925.
While serving as municipal judge, Terrell was also on the faculty of the Howard University Law School. In February 1911 he was a charter member of the first Washington, D.C. chapter of Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity (the Boule), the oldest black fraternity in the nation. served as Principal of the school from 1899 to 1901, before moving on to a distinguished career as D.C.'s first municipal court judge.
Their house, located at House; 326 T Street, NW was built c. 1894 as a duplex, is missing its western half due to a fire. A nonprofit group was formed in 2008 to restore the remaining half, and create a museum and cultural center honoring the Terrells.