Bill curates: Mary Church Terrell’s What it means to be coloured …

Bill Curates is an occasional series where I delve into Sue’s vast archive, stretching back to May 2009, and choose a post for us to revisit. In 2011, when today’s post was first published, Barack Obama was in his first term as President and then Senate Majority Leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, was pursuing a scorched earth policy of refusing to even allow Democrat legislation to be debated, with the stated aim of making Obama a one-termer. Obama got a second term, but then there was Trump, and racism in America seemed to take a giant step back into the light, giving new relevance to this talk from 1907.

This is the last Bill Curates post he sent me a few months ago. I intended to publish it then, but life, reading and blogging got busy, and I tucked this away in my drafts folder for another time. I think now is the time to post it and to thank Bill for the wonderful support he gave my blog through my dark year. It was so appreciated. Thank you Bill, you helped save my sanity.


My original post titled: Mary Church Terrell, What it means to be colored in the capital of the United States

Mary Church Terrell. Public Domain, National Parks Service, via Wikipedia

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.


I love that Bill decided to choose a non-Australian post for this BC. It’s so depressing to think that no improvements seem to have been made in the decade since I wrote this – there, or I fear in most countries. Certainly, statistics coming out here in Australia are showing no improvement in important measures, like life expectancy and incarceration. Indeed there’s been some sliding. This is not good enough.


16 thoughts on “Bill curates: Mary Church Terrell’s What it means to be coloured …

      • I am disheartened that in my little conservative corner of SoCal so many people object to even discussing racism and the ongoing effect of past systemic racism. My specific complaint is about people in my community who vehemently oppose the teaching of critical race theory and/or literature reflecting the diversity of the country. Many claim that because they don’t see color, the people of color in the community and country must be imagining their reality. If we cannot even discuss racism how can we ever make the country better for everyone. The chasm remains wide.

        Sorry if this is a repetitive posting.

  1. I’ve enjoyed doing this series Sue, and of course I’m pleased you found it helpful as well. Despite, I’m sure, most of your readers not having seen them first time round, Bill Curates would seem to have generated fewer comments than your posts usually do.

    I know you don’t follow football, let alone AFL, but this past week a star (white) player used a racial slur to refer to an opponent during a half-time address, and he was reported and suspended. The thing is is the AFL is very proactive about racial inclusion and this star player, and former club captain, has been subject to 14 years of racial education. There is now a very public debate about what, if anything ‘education’ achieves (see also Laming MP and attitudes to women).

    As with the revival of Jim Crow laws to suppress voting in the US, it seems progress is much less than we thought.

    • It was wonderfully helpful Bill, regardless of the number of comments. However, actually the average number of comments was close to my overall average. You forget that some garnered a lot of comments – the ones on The slap (72), Breath (54), Snow (37), My father’s moon (36), Thea Astley (35), The pea pickers (34) – were above my average number of comments. You can never tell. Snow, with 37, versus Diary of a bad year, with 14, or Fatelessness, with 20. Why was Pamuk more interesting than Coetzee or Kertesz? Is it the zeitgeist, or was it the time of the year, or pure serendipity? Anyhow, I feel very positive about it all…

      No, I don’t follow football, but that is interesting to hear. That’s a good question about this so-called “education”. (cf politicians and their training in harassment etc!!) It must help to some degree but there’s education and education, for one thing, and for another, it often has to confront some deep deep views that have been ingrained from other sources (family, etc)

      • No one is saying what this footballer, Walker, said, but it was pretty terrible apparently. The thing is, he is liked by his Aboriginal teammates (but has probably lost the last year of his contract, half a mil or so). I think of the Imp of the Perverse, not that I remember the story, but often the first thing that comes to mind is the worst thing, and I’d say he’s just gone and said it. Indigenous players are so fed up that they carry this constant burden of educating their mates and it is apparently all for nothing.

        • It is so entrenched in certain communities. It’s going to take a long time. I remember thinking this when I was involved in schools in the very late 80s and 90s. Schools have to compete with all sorts of home values and attitudes.

  2. My only thought is I cannot believe Mitch McConnell has been a massive piece of sh*t since 2011, and surely before then. (A quick Googling tells me he’s been in office since 1985 — MY ENTIRE LIFE). Never in recent history have Americans been so involved in politics as to know who the representatives are in every little branch, local and federal, since the 2016 election. That’s the only “good” thing that came of it all. Now, we’re more aware of how politics even work.

    • Thanks George. It’s tricky, isn’t it? We should recognise the progress we’ve made but also recognise that we can’t pat ourselves on the back as there’s more to do. It’s a fine balance. Recognising progress can make us feel energised and hopeful but it can also make people feel it’s done, which is what I fear happened a bit in the feminist movement through the 90s after the second wave? I don’t think that’s ever been quite the case with race relations, but it’s a risk.

      • A lot of people have thought or hoped that “it’s done” at any given stage of of change: emancipation, the 14th Amendment, Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights Act, the election of Obama. No, it isn’t done, but what to do is not clear. Legislation and judicial rulings have brought everyone to equivalent legal status. Obviously that is not enough; what would be nearer enough and politically practical, I don’t know.

        • You speak good truth George! And, no, I don’t know either. I think it is only “done” when the majority of human beings respect all other human beings regardless of colour (or gender or belief, etc etc etc.) How we effect that? Who knows!

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