Unit 4

Unit 4: Mary Church Terrell and Ida B. Wells

Mary Church Terrell was a women’s suffrage and racial equality activist who was born to former slaves. She used her position as a member of the rising middle/upper class to fight gender and race discrimination. Terrell’s activism was sparked in 1892 when her friend, Thomas Moss, was lynched solely because his business was successful and competed with the whites’ business. Ida B. Wells was born into slavery during the Civil War. After the war, her friend was lynched, and she turned her attention to white mob violence. Wells used her writing skills to combat sexism, racism, and violence. Both women were educated and acknowledged that there was an unwritten law that allowed whites to justify their mistreatment of blacks. In their writings, they both mentioned multiple individual accounts of violence to emphasize the disconnect between the written law and the actual state of affairs. 

Both Terrell and Wells were involved in the anti-lynching campaigns, but they had different ideas on how to end racial discrimination. Wells openly confronted white women who remained idle during the black lynchings. Terrell, however, worked to inspire black people and advocated for racial uplift, the notion that discrimination could be stopped if blacks advanced themselves through work, activism, and education. Terrell believed that this could only be achieved through unity. Though Terrell championed suffrage for all women, black and white, she placed a strong emphasis on black women’s suffrage, for even within the women’s rights movement, there was a great disregard for African American women. She believed that women’s suffrage would help to better the position of black women and in turn help the entire race. Wells recognized that lynching was a means to repress blacks and also found that many women who had claimed to be raped by black men had actually consented to sex. While Terrell seems to propose solutions to ending racial discrimination, Wells focuses on responses to individual acts of violence. Punishment for these acts of violence, however, could deter future actions of the same nature from happening, ultimately serving as a solution to ending anti-black violence.

It is sickening that men justified the lynchings by claiming that there was no other way to protect their women. They were not only racist but also sexist. In class, we discussed the absurdity of the situation. The authors of the law were the ones who were breaking the law! The very violation of the law was the way that things were supposed to go. Both of these women were revolutionaries in that they challenged the conceptual scheme at the time. They pushed against the social norm, and most colored people did not have the social standing or education that would enable them to put pressure on these discriminatory practices.