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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Matthew Gailani
August 18, 2020 will be 100 years since the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment, or change, to the Constitution says that, “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In other words, you can’t keep someone from voting just because they are a woman. While this still did not mean everyone could vote at the time, it was a big step in the history of voting rights (suffrage) in America.
Tennessee played an important role in women’s right to vote. It was the 36th state and final state needed to pass the amendment. This happened on August 18th, 1920. It is important to remember the hard work of Tennessee suffragists (suffrage supporters). Their hard work led to Tennessee making this change. Over the years, many Tennessee women fought for their right to vote. They did this by protesting, making speeches, marching in suffrage parades, and writing to their representatives. One of these Tennessee suffragists was Mary Church Terrell.
Mary Church Terrell, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Mary Church Terrell was born during the Civil War on September 23, 1863 in Memphis, Tennessee. Though both her parents were born into slavery, they became one of the wealthiest African American families in the country. As a result, Mary received a very good education. She graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio. She used her education to fight for people to be treated equally for the rest of her life. As an African American woman, Mary experienced the sexism faced by women in the United States and the racism towards African Americans.
Mary’s activism meant that she was a part of many different groups. She helped start the National Association of Colored Women* (NACW). This organization was founded in 1896. Mary served as the group’s first president, and they used the motto “lifting as we climb.” Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells were also members. One of the group’s causes was women’s right to vote. The members faced racism in the suffrage movement, and Mary helped raise awareness of their struggle. In a speech to the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), she asked the white suffragists to, “stand up not only for the oppressed [women], but also for the oppressed race!”
Presidents of the NACW, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
While Mary lived to see her hard work pay off with the right to vote in 1920, she did not stop being an activist. She continued to fight for equal rights for the rest of her life. She passed away on July 24, 1954. She was 90 years old. This year, as we remember the ratification of the 19th Amendment, we should also remember the women, like Mary Church Terrell, who fought for their right to vote.
Mary Church Terrell Library of Congress.
Representative: person that makes laws.
Ratification: To make something official.
Sexism: In this example, to treat someone worse, be unfair towards someone because they are a woman.
Racism: To treat someone worse, be unfair towards someone because of their race. In this example, because they are African American.
Activism: To take action to try and change something. Usually in politics or society.
Oppressed: Someone who is subject/faces harsh and unfair treatment.
National Association of Colored Women* It is important to remember that while used historically, “colored” is no longer an appropriate term to use.
Where was Mary Church Terrell born?
Name one cause Mary Church Terrell supported.
What do you think the following quote by Mary Church Terrell means?
“And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition 'ere long. With courage, born of success achieved in the past, with a keen sense of the responsibility which we shall continue to assume, we look forward to a future large with promise and hope. Seeking no favors because of our color, nor patronage because of our needs, we knock at the bar of justice, asking an equal chance."
One reason historians know so much about important people like Mary Church Terrell is because they kept journals and wrote a lot. This tells us what they were thinking and about the time they lived in. Try keeping your own journal! You can write about your day, what’s happening in the news, what your family is doing. What do you think historians would want to know about you?
Learn more about another suffragist and activist, Ida. B Wells, by reading our blog, “Standing Up by Siting Down.”
To learn more about Mary Church Terrell
Matthew Gailani is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.