Civil Rights leader and Highland Beach resident -
Mary Church Terrell was an African American activist who championed racial equality and women’s suffrage in the late 19th and early 20th century. She was one of the first African American women to graduate from college, earning both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Oberlin College.
Her father, Robert Church, was the first African American millionaire in the South. She used her wealth, her status, and her intellect to help end segregation and push for equality for all people.
Mrs. Terrell was also a close friend of Frederick Douglass and one of the first people to purchase a lot in Highland Beach, Maryland. Mr. Douglass asked her to buy a parcel near his property.
She and her husband Judge Robert H. Terrell purchased their property on August 23, 1893. Their cottage was built in 1915.
Nearly all the wood in the Terrell/Langston home – framing, flooring, and doors – are the remnants of the old Bay Ridge Hotel, which was destroyed in a fire in 1915. It was that nearby hotel that denied service to Charles and Laura Douglass in 1892. That incident led to the founding of Highland Beach.
After her husband suffered a stroke, he, unfortunately, couldn’t travel very much and often did not join her in Highland Beach. Judge Terrell passed away in December of 1925.
Mrs. Terrell outlived her husband by some 29 years. She enjoyed the beach, and very often would travel with her daughters and friends to Highland Beach.
In fact, in the 1920s, Mrs. Terrell purchased her own car, a Model- T, so that she could make the 38-mile drive along the new Defense Highway. She was determined and self-sufficient. Mrs. Terrell and her daughter Phyllis enrolled in light mechanical classes at Armstrong Technical High School in Washington, D.C., to be able to handle any roadside emergency.
Ray Langston, Highland Beach Mayor for eight years and now Mayor Emeritus, was drawn to the beach even as a young boy.
When his father remarried, marrying Phyllis Terrell in 1944, at the age of four Ray Langston and his siblings became part of the Terrell family.
Mrs. Terrell's activism was always an important part of her life. Ray Langston remembers walking the picket lines outside Hecht’s Department Store in Washington, D.C., on Saturday mornings before they could head to the beach.
Mr. Langston also recalls family crab feasts at the home - known as Villa Aloha. But mostly he remembers the many people Mrs. Terrell would invite to her summer home on the Chesapeake Bay. While he was on the beach with his friends, Mrs. Terrell would host the women in the community – serving tea, sharing lunch, or playing cards.
At that time Highland Beach was very much a summer-only community. In fact, it was mostly a weekend community for some.
Mrs. Terrell’s activism also extended to Highland Beach. In 1921 she served on the Highland Beach Charter committee.
The committee consisted of Chairman Edwin B. (EB) Henderson, Haley Douglass, Eula Ross Grey, Milton Francis, and Mrs. Terrell. In 1922 they secured incorporation from the Maryland legislature. Highland Beach became the first African American incorporated town in the state of Maryland.
Mrs. Terrell was politically active all her life. Well into her 80s, she was marching outside stores in Washington, D.C., in her never-ending push for civil rights.
On February 28, 1950, 86-year-old Mary Church Terrell invited her friends Reverend Arthur F. Elmes, Essie Thompson and David Scull to lunch with her at Thompson’s Restaurant in Washington, D.C. Mr. Scull was white.
When the four entered the establishment, took their trays and proceeded down the counter line, the manager told the group that Thompson’s policy forbid him from serving them.
She filed a lawsuit. She won. It was a unanimous 8-0 decision in 1953, ending segregation in all Washington, D.C., establishments.
In her 1940s memoir, A Colored Woman in A White World, she wrote that she felt compelled to act. She embraced the tradition of agitation going back to Frederick Douglass. She said, “It’s my duty to send a message to the country, to the world, that we are no longer patient with being pushed around.”
Her daughter, Phyllis Terrell was born in 1898.
Along with her mother, as a young girl, she picketed the White House during the National Woman's Party demonstrations that called on President Woodrow Wilson to support the women's suffrage amendment.
In Highland Beach Phyllis Terrell-Langston served as Postmistress from 1954 until 1966, after Fannie Douglass retired from that position.
A commitment to service is part of the fabric of the Terrell-Langston family.
Ray Langston, Phyllis’s stepson, has made Highland Beach his life’s work. Mr. Langston served as commissioner 20 years and mayor 8 years. He continues to serve and advise as Mayor Emeritus.
Today, Mary Church Terrell is being more widely recognized for the tremendous difference she made in civil rights and women’s rights.
In Lorton, Virginia, at the women’s suffragette memorial there is a statue in recognition of her work for voting rights.
Terrell Place at the corner of 7th and F Streets NW in Washington, D.C., is named in her honor. It’s the site of the old Hecht’s store where she marched for an end to segregation.
At the end of last year and after years of research, Alison M. Parker published her biography of Mary Church Terrell. Unceasing Militant draws on letters and diaries to produce an intimate portrait of Mrs. Terrell.
During her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, now Vice-President Kamala Harris noted, “…These women inspired us to pick up the torch, and fight on - women like Mary Church Terrell and Mary McCleod Bethune, Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash, Constance Baker Motley and Shirley Chisholm. We’re not often taught their stories, but as Americans, we all stand on their shoulders.”
At Mrs. Terrell's alma mater, Oberlin College in Ohio, the library is named in her honor.
At Town Hall in Highland Beach the Terrell/Langston library is dedicated to African American studies.
The family donated rare, first-edition books from the collection of Mary and Robert Terrell.
Ray and Jean Langston donated many, many more, giving the town its own important library for the continuing studies of African American history.
In addition, Mr. and Mrs. Langston worked tirelessly to secure the Douglass summer home for the town of Highland Beach. They donated many artifacts and played key leadership roles in the transformation of Twin Oaks, the Douglass summer home, into the museum it is today.
As Highland Beach continues to move forward, it will bestow another honor on Mary Church Terrell. A new community pavilion will be named for Mrs. Terrell. Mayor William Sanders is awaiting budget approval through the Maryland legislature and working to secure the necessary permitting for the new pavilion. It will be a fitting tribute to Mrs. Terrell, a champion of human rights and a founding member of Highland Beach, Maryland.
Sources and Additional Reading:
Timeline of Mary Church Terrell's Life, Library of Congress
Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell by Alison M. Parker
Mary Church Terrell | National Women's History Museum (womenshistory.org)
Mary Church Terrell - Wikipedia
How One Woman Helped End Lunch Counter Segregation in the Nation’s Capital | History | Smithsonian Magazine
Highland Beach on the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland's First African American Incorporated Town