Mary Church Terrell, What it means to be colored in the capital of the United States
I heard a radio interview this week with Jane Elliott of the brown-eye-blue-eye experiment fame, and she suggested that racism is still an issue in the USA (through the efforts of a vocal minority) and is best demonstrated by the determination in certain quarters that Barack Obama will not win a second term*. It’s therefore apposite (perhaps) that my first Library of America post this year be on last week’s offering, “What it means to be colored in the capital of the United States” by Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954). This essay originated, according to LOA’s introductory notes, in a talk Terrell gave at a Washington women’s club in 1906. It was then published anonymously, LOA says, in The Independent, in 1907.
Now, I’d never heard of Terrell, but she sounds like one amazing woman. Not only did she live an impressive-for-the-times long life, but she had significant achievements, including being, it is believed, the first black woman to be appointed to a Board of Education (in 1895). She also helped found the National Association of Colored Women. On a slightly different tack, she was a long-time friend of H.G. Wells. Interesting woman, eh?
I have a few reasons for being interested in this essay, besides Jane Elliott’s comment. I lived in the DC area – in Northern Virginia – for two years in the early-mid 1980s and was surprised by some of my own experiences regarding race there. And, as a teen in the 1960s and early 1970s, I was aware of and fascinated by the Civil Rights movement in the USA. I was surprised but thrilled to hear, late last year, an audio version of John Howard Griffin‘s book, Black like me, that I read and loved back in those days.
But enough background. To the essay… I’ll start by saying that I’m not surprised that it began as a talk, because it seemed to ramble a bit. However, as I read on, some structure did start to appear. She starts by listing the various areas in which she, as a black woman, was (or would have been if she’d tried) discriminated against in the national capital. These include finding a boarding house and a place to eat, being able to use public transport, finding non-menial employment, being able to attend the theatre or a white church, and gaining an education. She introduces her section on transport as follows:
As a colored woman I cannot visit the tomb of the Father of this country, which owns its very existence to the love of freedom in the human heart and which stands for equal opportunity for all, without being forced to sit in the Jim Crow section of an electric car …
The irony here is not subtle – but she’s in the business of education where subtlety would not get her far!
She then returns to many of these issues – and this is where I started to wonder about her structure – but what she does is move from introducing the issues by using herself as an example to exploring each one using real examples of people she knows or has heard of. She describes, for example, how employers might be willing to employ a skilled black person, but are lobbied by other staff and threatened with boycotts by clients and so take the easy path of firing (or not hiring) the black person in favour of a white person. In one case the employer is a Jew,
… and I felt that it was particularly cruel, unnatural and cold-blooded for the representative of one oppressed and persecuted race to deal so harshly and unjustly with a member of another.
You can guess why, in 1907, this was published anonymously!
Anyhow, I won’t repeat all the examples she provides to demonstrate the extent of prejudice at play, because you can read the essay yourself. I will simply end with her conclusion:
… surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because the chasm between the principles upon which this Government was founded, in which it still professes to believe, and those which are daily practiced under the protection of the flag, yawns so wide and deep.
Some 100 or so years later, the US sees itself as the leader of the free world and yet it seems that this chasm is still rather wide. What are the chances that it will completely close one day?
* Please note that this is not a holier-than-thou post. We Aussies have our own problems with racism and prejudice, and so I am not about to throw stones at anyone else.