Saturday, January 9, 2021

Alison M. Parker's "Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell"

Alison M. Parker is department chair and Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell, and reported the following:
Page 99 is part of a chapter entitled “The Black Elite: Finances, Militancy, and Family,” in my biography of the civil rights activist and feminist, Mary Church Terrell. On this page, Mary (“Mollie”) Church Terrell is writing to her husband, Robert (“Berto”) H. Terrell, lamenting that neither of their daughters seemed prepared to “represent the race” to the majority white population that was always ready to dismiss Black Americans as inferior:
It was particularly difficult for Mollie to see her daughter refuse to apply herself to her language studies. After all, one of her proudest moments at Oberlin College involved reciting Greek in front of an impressed Matthew Arnold, the visiting English writer, who openly declared he had not believed anyone “of African descent” could correctly pronounce Greek. Although stung by his racist presumptions, Mollie was gratified to have proved him wrong and to have represented her race well. Berto Terrell, of course, was also an accomplished linguist.

Other talented black parents shared the Terrells’ problems. On a visit to Memphis, after a conversation with a childhood friend about her sons, Mollie reported to Berto, “My darling Husband…. Fannie came over and talked several hours about the utter worthlessness of her two boys. It is really pathetic to see how utterly good for nothing children of well-to-do, ambitious parents are. The parents have all the pride and aspiration while the children have practically none.” Mollie then declared, “If Mary does not improve, if she continues to show such a lack of interest and pride in her High School course as she has manifested up to date, I am going to use heroic measures for a short while, at least.”

As it became clear that their daughters seemed unlikely to shine academically, Mollie and Berto decided to cultivate their musical talents. The desire to foster their daughters’ musical abilities derived in part from the valuable social and performative aspects of playing music as a form of cultural capital and status. They expected each daughter to become an accomplished musician who could play at least one instrument and sing well. Mollie began to find practice sessions more rewarding: “P[hyllis] is improving so much on the piano….She is such a comfort to me now. She seems to be taking pride in her work.” Genuine dedication, whether academic or musical, were precisely what Mollie was yearning for from her children.
The page 99 test gets at some of the key points of the chapter and, to some degree, the book. The Terrell couple were both born into slavery but ended up far surpassing the limitations and burdens of their family histories of enslavement to become well-educated, prominent activists and professionals. Mollie Church Terrell earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Oberlin College and Berto Terrell earned his Bachelor’s degree from Harvard University and his law degree from Howard University. The couple met in the late 1880s while teaching Latin and Greek at the prominent M Street Colored High School. Mollie Terrell was appointed to as the first African American woman on the Washington, D.C. school board in 1895 and Berto Terrell became the first African American justice of the peace in 1901. As members of the Black elite, the Terrell couple deliberately used their education and prominence to advocate for civil rights and educational rights for all African Americans.

While raising their daughters, the Terrells hoped and expected that they, too, would show by their attainments and deeds what Black Americans could do and achieve, in spite of the painful legacies of enslavement. Their daughter, Phyllis, for instance, was born in 1898, at the peak of lynching in the U.S. and at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) allowed Jim Crow to take hold of the South and, ultimately the nation. It was terribly discouraging for prominent activist parents like the Terrells, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington to find that their treasured, comparatively privileged children were not doing well in school and did not seem to have their fighting spirit. Leading Black activists often put intense pressure on their children, who did not always rise to their parents’ high expectations.

The rest of the biography moves on from page 99’s focus on her disappointed parental expectations, however, to reveal Terrell’s determination to continue being a leader in the struggle for civil rights. She gratefully accepted her mother’s help with childcare and her husband’s loving partnership and full endorsement of her radical activism, including her work with the likes of John Milholland, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Ida B. Wells to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Mollie Church Terrell fought passionately for the rights of all Black children to live in a society without violence, segregation, and discrimination.
Learn more about Unceasing Militant at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue