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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Mary Church Terrell challenges segregation

Mary Church Terrell, the descendant of a white master and a black slave, had received education and protection because of her father's position in her home community. By the time Durr knew her, she was an older woman who used her education, genteel manners, and connections to fight against segregation.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, March 13, 14, 15, 1975. Interview G-0023-2. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

I would like to hear the story about Mary Church Terrell, while you are on stories.
Oh, Mary Church Terrell was an extremely old lady . . . this is a very strange story . . . she was extremely old when I knew her. She was very light and she wore these high boned . . . my mother used to wear them, they were made out of net and had little whale bones and the idea was to hold up your double chin, I guess, or your sagging chin. But they had little frills on top. Old ladies used to wear them all the time. You see, when people got to my age in those days, they dressed like old ladies. They didn't put a henna rinse on their hair and they wore black dresses and white frills and these high collars with these little whale bones, you know. It held their neck up, if you know what I mean. And very attractive, really. Because that awful bloodhound look that you get. I want to have my face lifted, but Cliff won't . . . (laughter) Everybody when they get old wants to get away from that dropped look. (laughter).
What if some psychiatrist looked at your face, what is he going to come out with there? (laughter)
Well, I was just giving the difference between old ladies in those days and old ladies now. Everybody wants to be young and then, everyone just accepted the fact that they got old and dressed old and looked old. Mrs. Mary Church Terrell looked old and she dressed old. She wore a little kind of bonnet and always wore black and always had these white frills on and white gloves and pearls and earrings. She was a very handsome woman and very charming and intelligent and very nice. She was the head of the Republican Women. So, she came to the anti-poll tax meetings for years. And we were very friendly and pleasant and so one day, she said to me something about coming from Memphis, Tennessee. And I said, "You know, my Mother's family came from Memphis, Tennessee." And she said, "What was your mother's family name?" I said, "Patterson." She said, "You couldn't be the grand-daughter of JosiahPatterson, could you?" I said, "Yes." She said, "Well, he was my guardian." I said, "My grandfather was your guardian?" You know, this really gave me quite a turn. It just seemed incredible. She said, "Yes, yes. I have a great many letters from him and from your uncle, Governor Patterson, and if you will come to my house one day, I'II show them to you." So, she lived in one of those brownstones in Washington, up on one of those avenues with trees and everything. A nice old Victorian house and it was all furnished with Victorian things inside. You see, her husband had been a judge, Judge Terrell, a Negro judge. So, she showed me these letters from my grandfather and my uncle, and this is the story that she told me, which really shook me up, because it was something else that I hadn't known. You see, my grandfather lived in Memphis and was a lawyer and he went off to war, one of his best friends was named Mr. Church. Colonel Church, he was. He was a great soldier in the Confederate Army. So, as so many of them did in those days, he had both his black family and his white family. His white family were big people in Memphis, way up yonder, very rich and fashionable. He also had his black family. He had a son who he gave his name to, called Bob Church, Jr. He gave his son his name, this was really unusual.
He was black.
Well, he was half black. So, he gave him his name and said, "Now look, you are my son, I have claimed you and given you my name and I don't want you to ever let a white man treat you like a nigger." Or something like that, I can't remember the exact words. Anyway, it was to hold up your head and be proud. Well, Bob Church, Jr. became the black political boss of Memphis and this was first time that blacks voted after the disenfranchising acts, because he formed an alliance with old Ed Crump and he provided the black vote for Ed Crump. They would bring them in from Arkansas by the truckload and vote them in the Memphis elections. They controlled the city for years and years. And this Mary Church Terrell was old Bob Church's daughter. She had been sent to Oberlin College up in Ohio to school. You know that that was one of the first integrated schools. Then, his son, Bob Church Jr.'s son had some break with Ed Crump after his father died, I never did know the details of that story, but he had gone to Chicago and become part of the political power there, in the Republican party. And Mrs. Terrell, you see, was also in the Republican party. So, she told me all this and she had the letters to prove it, you know.
Well, you skipped a bit there, about how your grandfather got to be a guardian under the will of old Colonel Church. By this will, he left some property to his black children and your grandfather got to be the executor and guardian of these children.
Yes, of the black Church children. Now, that was a very surprising thing for me to find out because that was the first time that I had realized that all these relationships had existed. You know, some of the white men did protect their children, their black children, and educated them. Here in Alabama, Governor Oates, when he was running for governor, they got up in the legislature and said, "Well, what about all those nigger children you've got in the back yard?" And the governor got up and said, "What about them? I feed them, I clothe them, I house them and I educate them. What do you do about yours?" (laughter) He got elected. (interruption on tape while original reel is changed). . ., I know D. C. segregation was first broken in some chain restaurant. Mrs. Terrell went in and then she was arrested and then the case came in her name and that broke segregation in D.C..