“What It Means to Be Colored in the Capital of the U.S.A.” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

One of the first African American women to earn a college degree, Mary Church Terrell was a prominent public figure in Washington, DC, when she delivered a speech to the United Women’s Club on October 10, 1906. The nation’s capital had been officially segregated since the late nineteenth century, and Terrell pointed out the injustice of a system that denied citizens all manner of services and opportunities based solely on their race. By the year of her speech, Terrell had earned a master’s degree from Oberlin College (a level of education typically reserved for white men), served as the first president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women, and been appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education. She was an accomplished public speaker and used her position to argue against the racism and prejudice she encountered. In her speech, Terrell argues that far from being a place of opportunity for African Americans, Washington, DC, was a city where prejudice and segregation made their lives “almost impossible.”

Summary Overview

One of the first African American women to earn a college degree, Mary Church Terrell was a prominent public figure in Washington, DC, when she delivered a speech to the United Women’s Club on October 10, 1906. The nation’s capital had been officially segregated since the late nineteenth century, and Terrell pointed out the injustice of a system that denied citizens all manner of services and opportunities based solely on their race. By the year of her speech, Terrell had earned a master’s degree from Oberlin College (a level of education typically reserved for white men), served as the first president of the newly formed National Association of Colored Women, and been appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education. She was an accomplished public speaker and used her position to argue against the racism and prejudice she encountered. In her speech, Terrell argues that far from being a place of opportunity for African Americans, Washington, DC, was a city where prejudice and segregation made their lives “almost impossible.”

Defining Moment

Before the Civil War, Washington, DC, had a significant free black population. Slavery was legal in the city as well, and slaves were transported to Washington for sale until 1850. Slavery was abolished in the capital on April 16, 1862, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. The Act, delivered nearly nine months before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, paid slave owners to free their slaves and provided financial incentives for freed slaves to leave the United States. Despite those incentives, a large, active African American community, including a significant educated elite, developed in the city, establishing thriving businesses, supporting the arts, and founding schools and colleges.

The period after the Civil War was one of significant growth for the city’s African American citizens. The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) extended citizenship and equal protection under the law to African Americans, and the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) outlawed racial discrimination in voting. Black Washingtonians successfully fought discriminatory practices in public transportation and in schools and the workplace. Efforts were bolstered by the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which attempted to prohibit racial discrimination in public accommodations. In 1883, the Supreme Court of the United States declared the statute unconstitutional. The judges’ decision that private companies and facilities, such as theaters and trains, could not be regulated by federal statute marked the beginning of increasingly repressive Jim Crow segregation laws. This, along with a white Southern backlash against the integrated Reconstruction governments in the South, meant that rights for black Southerners, including residents of Washington, DC, quickly eroded. In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the United States Supreme Court essentially legalized segregation, stating in the majority decision that the establishment of separate but equal facilities for African Americans was not unconstitutional.

In 1872, Lewis Douglass, son of influential abolitionist and statesman Fredrick Douglass, had successfully introduced a bill banning segregation in public places in Washington. Though this law was not officially repealed, segregation laws were later passed that governed public schools and facilities. When not enforced through laws, segregation was maintained through custom and intimidation. In her 1906 speech, Terrell outlined many of the ways that segregation, even when not enforced by law, hampered freedom of movement and restricted employment opportunities for African Americans in Washington, DC. The city’s African American residents were not able to rent a hotel room, sit at a lunch counter, or expect service in a department store. They were restricted to but a few trades, and preference was nearly always given to white applicants for employment. In Terrell’s view, African Americans were “sacrificed on the altar of prejudice in the Capital of the United States.”

Author Biography

Mary Church Terrell was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 23, 1863. Her parents were former slaves, and her father, Robert Church, became quite wealthy as a real estate investor. Terrell attended Oberlin College, one of the first colleges in the United States to admit both white and black students. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin in 1884 and a master’s degree in 1888. After college, Terrell taught school in Washington, DC, and studied in Europe. In 1891, she married Robert Heberton Terrell, Washington’s first black municipal court judge. Terrell was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education in 1895, becoming the first African American woman to hold the post. Terrell was a well-respected journalist and public speaker who argued against segregation and in favor of women’s suffrage. In 1909, she played a key role in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Terrell continued to fight for civil rights and desegregation until her death in 1954.

Document Analysis

On October 10, 1906, Terrell delivered her speech to the United Women’s Club of Washington, DC, an overwhelmingly white audience. Terrell’s speech begins with a denunciation of the reputation that Washington, DC, had as “the Colored Man’s Paradise.” The city could only be thought of as paradise to one accustomed to slavery, she argues. Terrell goes on to give examples of sweeping segregation and widespread discrimination, describing “the variety of ways in which our people are sacrificed on the altar of prejudice in the Capital of the United States and how almost insurmountable are the obstacles which block his path to success.”

Washington presented a host of difficulties to African American travelers and residents alike. Terrell begins with the problem of room and board. Any other race of people, she argues, would have a place to sleep and food to eat so long as they could pay their bill. Not so with African Americans. “Unless I happened to know colored people who live here or ran across a chance acquaintance who could recommend a colored boarding-house to me, I should be obliged to spend the entire night wandering about,” she explains. Terrell also lays out the difficulties inherent in finding a place to eat, using public transportation, finding a seat in a theater, or visiting a department store.

Perhaps most egregious to Terrell was the lack of employment opportunities available to African American men and women. A single drop of African blood was enough to cost someone a job or prevent him or her from being hired in the first place, regardless of skills or qualifications. She explains, “It matters not what my intellectual attainments may be or how great is the need of the services of a competent person, if I try to enter many of the numerous vocations in which my white sisters are allowed to engage, the door is shut in my face.” Terrell provides examples of discrimination in various professions, noting that African American teachers had lost jobs as department heads, even in segregated schools, and so incoming teachers had no way to move up within the system. Terrell argues that even when African American men joined unions that had a nondiscriminatory policy, the system was often rigged so black men were the last to be given work and were not promoted.

Terrell closes her speech with her conclusion that segregation and discrimination render African Americans helpless and hopeless. Even sympathetic white men and women could not fully “realize what life would mean to [them if their] incentive to effort were suddenly snatched away.” Terrell’s catalogue of prejudice and injustice was made more poignant by its place in the capital of the United States, which should have protected and defended the rights of its citizens. Despite the nation’s lofty ideals, Terrell concludes, “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, yawn[s] so wide and deep.”

Essential Themes

The primary theme of this speech is the grave injustice suffered by African Americans in the very home of American government, which should have been devoted to the protection of its citizens. Terrell outlines the ways that segregation made even routine travel difficult, prevented gainful employment, and robbed African Americans of the ability to better themselves. Her speech is made the more poignant by her location. She notes that if she attempted to visit George Washington’s grave to pay tribute to the man who founded a country that “stands for equal opportunity to all,” she would be forced to sit in the back of a streetcar, and she would likewise find it difficult to get a meal while on her way to the White House. Even in Washington, DC, whose government was meant to protect all of its citizens, segregation had made life for African Americans “intolerable.”

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Fradin, Dennis Brindell, and Judith Bloom Fradin. Fight On! Mary Church Terrell’s Battle for Integration. New York: Clarion, 2005. Print.
  • Holland, Jesse J. Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History in and around Washington. Guilford: Globe Pequot, 2007. Print.
  • Lightman, David. “Racial Barriers Fell Slowly in Capital.” Journal Sentinel [Milwaukee]. Journal Sentinel, 16 Jan. 2009. Web. 28 Apr. 2014.
Categories: History Content