Guest lecturer presents biography of suffragist and civil rights activist

Joan Quigley discusses activist Mary Church Terrell during the 2020 Charlotte Schmidlapp Distinguished Lecture in Women’s Studies.

Suffragist and civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell was born in 1863, the same year of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. She died in 1954, a few weeks after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which desegregated schools across the country. 

But Church Terrell was involved with a Supreme Court decision of her own, said Joan Quigley, guest lecturer during Friday’s annual Charlotte Schmidlapp Distinguished Lecture in Women’s Studies.  

Quigley, author of “Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Nation’s Capital,” detailed Church Terrell’s struggle with Jim Crow laws in Washington, D.C., beginning in 1950. 

“She decided to challenge Jim Crow restaurants in Washington once and for all,” Quigley said. “And on January 27, 1950, she walked into a place called Thompson’s Restaurant. It was a couple blocks from the White House. It was a cafeteria, and she got in line. And the restaurant manager came right over, and he said, using the language of the time, ‘We don’t serve colored people. It’s company policy.’” 

Church Terrell took the restaurant to court, and for the next three years, the case wound its way through the legal system, Quigley said. In April 1953, the U.S. Supreme Court heard her case.  

No matter where the Supreme Court justices were from, Quigley said, “they knew Jim Crow because it was right at their doorstep, and Mary Church Terrell’s case gave them the chance to put an end to it.” 

On June 8, 1853, the court decided unanimously in her favor.  

Quigley said Church Terrell stood at the intersection of the women’s movement and the civil rights movement.  

“It’s an extraordinary time to think about her and what she did,” Quigley said. “For most of her adult life, she fought for equality for everyone.” 

Marshall University’s Society of Black Scholars completed a service-learning project in conjunction with the lecture about Church Terrell and Carter G. Woodson’s relationship.  

Malik Smith, a member of the Society of Black Scholars, said they worked with Quigley’s book about Church Terrell and wanted to give Quigley a new perspective involving Woodson. The organization worked with the Special Collections department at Morrow Library to conduct research. 

“(We) wanted to show her that Carter G. Woodson had this working relationship with Mary Church Terrell,” Smith said.  

Church Terrell was a founding member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, which was created in 1913. Cynthia Jones, chapter president of the alumni sorority in Huntington and associate professor in Marshall’s School of Pharmacy, said the history of the Deltas means a lot to her and makes her feel proud. 

Amanda Larch
Members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, which was cofounded by Church Terrell, pose with Quigley after Friday’s lecture in the Brad D. Smith Foundation Hall.

“I have to continue the work that they’ve done to make sure that we have equal rights for women, all women, that our communities are taken care of, that our children are taken care of and that people who can’t speak for themselves that if we can speak for them, then we need to speak for them,” Jones said.  

Members of Marshall’s Delta Sigma Theta and the Huntington sorority met with Quigley to discuss the history of the sorority and Church Terrell’s legacy, and the Society of Black Scholars presented their research findings to Quigley as well.

Amanda Larch can be contacted at [email protected].