Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Just Another Southern Town: Mary Church Terrell and the Struggle for Racial justice in the Nation's Capital

"Besides, you ain't going North, not the real North. You going to Washington. It's just another southern town." Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

In 1950, five years before Rosa Parks remained seated on a bus, a party of four meet at Thompson's Restaurant in Washington, D.C. The group included  ninety-year-old Mary Church Terrell. Mary wanted to challenge the legality of segregation in the nation's capital, a tricky legal question for a city that in 1874 lost the right to elect their own governance or congressional representation. Anti-discrimination laws had not been enforced in D.C., which was "just another Southern town" under Jim Crow segregation. At an age when most men and women were content to pass the baton to younger hands, Mary took a stand for justice.

Mary was born in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, the daughter of former slaves. She had known Fredrick Douglas and died the year of Brown vs. Board of Education, her ninety years spanning Reconstruction to segregation and lynchings to activism and the legal dismantling of segregation. A college graduate, young Mary longed to make a difference. Harvard law graduate Robert H. Terrell pressured her to marry and she finally gave her hand. Mary underwent miscarriages, raised a daughter, and ran the household while juggling a career as a public speaker, reformer, and writer.

Just Another Southern Town by Joan Quigly is a biography of a woman torn between the demands of family and her desire to change the world. It is also the story of race relations in America and in our capital city, a detailed history of the legal battle of the District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co, Inc. which in 1953 ended the segregation of restaurants.

I enjoyed learning more about Mary Church Terrell. She was elegant and well dressed, with a "flair for self-promotion." Her marriage was based on intellectual equality, but she and Robert differed in all other ways, including politically. Robert was a joiner, an extrovert, and his government position as the first black American judge required avoiding controversy. Robert was friends with Booker T. Washington; Mary was friends with W. E. DuBois and became radicalized in her older years.

Quigley sets Mary's life in context of her times and highlights her role in the long march towards social equality and justice. The court cases could have been deadly reading in less capable hands. I am glad to have learned more about Mary and about this part of the history of Civil Rights.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
Mary Church Terrell on my quilt I Will Lift My Voice Like a Trumpet

Just Another Southern Town
by Joan Quilgley
Oxford University Press
$29.95 hard cover
Publication Date: February 1, 2016

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