The main library in Oberlin College’s Mudd Center will be named in honor of 1884 graduate Mary Church Terrell, an educator, feminist, civil rights activist, and a founding member of the National Association of Colored Women and the NAACP.
When director of libraries Alexia Hudson-Ward moved into her spacious, bookshelf-lined office on the main library’s first level, she was playfully warned by library staff there were “ghosts” in the building. But when one particular book title continually fell from its shelf, she had to wonder whether there might be something to the good-natured advisory.
“I have so many books, but one particular title kept falling onto the floor. Even college archivist Ken Grossi, in witnessing this phenomenon, said to me ‘Someone is trying to tell you something.’ I thought it was likely just caused by vibrations, but no other books ever fell — except for the book by Mary Church Terrell, ‘A Colored Woman in a White World,’” she said. “This happened long before the board of trustees made the announcement that the main library was going to named in her honor. So I don’t know what it was — if it was Terrell or just someone else saying, ’You need to read this book.’”
Considered one of the progenitors of the modern civil rights movement, Terrell was born in 1863 to mixed-race, formerly enslaved parents.
An 1884 graduate of Oberlin College, she was an educator, feminist, and activist who worked to further social justice during a pivotal time in which one’s gender and race were limiting factors.
Terrell was also a prolific writer who used her prose to further her social and political concerns via scholarly articles, poems, and short stories in journals and magazines. In 1940, she published her autobiography, which details her struggles with gender and race discrimination in the United States.
“We have pictures of her (in the Oberlin College Archives) as an older woman on the picket line with signs, protesting,” says Hudson-Ward. “Mary Church Terrell really did embody the spirit of the institution around social justice and how one person can change the world.”
In 1955 — a year before the Supreme Court’s landmark school desegregation ruling — Terrell re-entered the spotlight for her role in District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., Inc. The case brought about a unanimous decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that invalidated segregated restaurants in Washington, D.C.
In February 2016, Terrell’s activist work was the subject of a campus symposium, “Complicated Relationships: Mary Church Terrell’s Legacy for 21st Century Activists.” Organized by Jane and Eric Nord Associate Professor of Africana Studies Pam Brooks and Emerita Professor of History Carol Lasser, the event brought Terrell’s civil rights work to the forefront and celebrated a significant gift of her letters, diaries, photographs, flyers, and awards to the college archives.
“Terrell embodied the determination that it took for a young black woman at that time to live and work in a totally white environment. As an educator, activist, and woman, she personifies all of these ideas and understandings of what our school stands for or hopes to stand for,” said Brooks. “She gave a great deal to the institution and to our country.”
This article was provided by Oberlin College and was edited heavily for length and style.