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Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell

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Born into slavery during the Civil War, Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) would become one of the most prominent activists of her time, with a career bridging the late nineteenth century to the civil rights movement of the 1950s. The first president of the National Association of Colored Women and a founding member of the NAACP, Terrell collaborated closely with the likes of Born into slavery during the Civil War, Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) would become one of the most prominent activists of her time, with a career bridging the late nineteenth century to the civil rights movement of the 1950s. The first president of the National Association of Colored Women and a founding member of the NAACP, Terrell collaborated closely with the likes of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Unceasing Militant is the first full-length biography of Terrell, bringing her vibrant voice and personality to life. Though most accounts of Terrell focus almost exclusively on her public activism, Alison M. Parker also looks at the often turbulent, unexplored moments in her life to provide a more complete account of a woman dedicated to changing the culture and institutions that perpetuated inequality throughout the United States. Drawing on newly discovered letters and diaries, Parker weaves together the joys and struggles of Terrell's personal, private life with the challenges and achievements of her public, political career, producing a stunning portrait of an often-under recognized political leader.


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Born into slavery during the Civil War, Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) would become one of the most prominent activists of her time, with a career bridging the late nineteenth century to the civil rights movement of the 1950s. The first president of the National Association of Colored Women and a founding member of the NAACP, Terrell collaborated closely with the likes of Born into slavery during the Civil War, Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) would become one of the most prominent activists of her time, with a career bridging the late nineteenth century to the civil rights movement of the 1950s. The first president of the National Association of Colored Women and a founding member of the NAACP, Terrell collaborated closely with the likes of Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Unceasing Militant is the first full-length biography of Terrell, bringing her vibrant voice and personality to life. Though most accounts of Terrell focus almost exclusively on her public activism, Alison M. Parker also looks at the often turbulent, unexplored moments in her life to provide a more complete account of a woman dedicated to changing the culture and institutions that perpetuated inequality throughout the United States. Drawing on newly discovered letters and diaries, Parker weaves together the joys and struggles of Terrell's personal, private life with the challenges and achievements of her public, political career, producing a stunning portrait of an often-under recognized political leader.

39 review for Unceasing Militant: The Life of Mary Church Terrell

  1. 4 out of 5

    Raymond

    Alison Parker has written a great new biography about Mary Church Terrell, the civil rights activist and suffragist whose works spanned decades between the 1890s to her passing in 1954. In this book Parker tells a powerful story of a woman who needs to be recognized more for her trailblazing achievements. Parker’s book begins with Terrell’s early life. She was born into slavery in 1863, the child of mulatto parents. Her father, Robert Church, was an activist who fought for the integration of the Alison Parker has written a great new biography about Mary Church Terrell, the civil rights activist and suffragist whose works spanned decades between the 1890s to her passing in 1954. In this book Parker tells a powerful story of a woman who needs to be recognized more for her trailblazing achievements. Parker’s book begins with Terrell’s early life. She was born into slavery in 1863, the child of mulatto parents. Her father, Robert Church, was an activist who fought for the integration of the street car system in Memphis, TN. Her husband, Berto Terrell, was a D.C. justice of the peace who was very supportive of his wife’s career as an activist even when it threatened his own. Mary Church Terrell was a suffragist and civil rights activist. She served as the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and was also a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Terrell and Ida B. Wells were the only founding mothers of the latter civil right organization. Terrell was also a strong advocate for direct action in the struggle for equal rights; she was one of the many Black women that participated in the 1913 women’s suffrage parade. Terrell was a political thinker and a frequent public speaker. She spoke on the intersectionality, before the term existed, of being a Black woman. Parker does a great job of placing Terrell in the continuum of political thought that began with Phillis Wheatley and continues through Kimberlé Crenshaw’s scholarship. During her suffragist days, Terrell went after White feminists who did not advocate for Black women and their rights. I believe if Terrell was alive today that she would be marching alongside the many activists shouting “Say Her Name”. Parker also covers Terrell’s views on religion and social justice. She was a Christian who believed that the Church should take a more militant stance when it came to civil rights, at the time it was not currently doing so. Parker shows that Terrell’s views of religion would later become a part of the Liberation theology movement. Parker’s book also covers Terrell’s role in partisan politics. She was a loyal Republican, just like many African Americans at the time. However, Terrell remained a loyal Republican even when the Democrats began to make inroads with Blacks and the Republicans started taking Black voters for granted and stopped actively pushing for policies that would have benefitted the community. Terrell later held a position in the Republican National Committee (RNC) and served on a congressional campaign. In her role as a campaign surrogate she gave speeches to Black voters encouraging them to vote for Republicans and even conducted opposition research in the congressional campaign. Even with these many successes Terrell still faced racism from her fellow Republicans. Later in the 1930s Terrell was only offered unpaid positions with the RNC. One of the many interesting chapters of the book is Chapter 9: “Attraction and Politics in the Great Depression” which covers Terrell’s romantic relationship/affair with a Member of Congress. From my reading of the chapter, it seems that this relationship was not widely known in previous scholarship. Parker did a good job using Terrell’s diaries and other primary sources to explain the intricacies of this relationship, how it started, how it was sustained, and how it ultimately ended. The remainder of Terrell’s life consisted of numerous successes and challenges that she experienced leading all the way to the day she passed away in 1954 at the age of 90. She continued to remain a loyal Republican, fought for the integration of restaurants in D.C., and also spoke before an international audience at the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Parker has written an excellent biography of Terrell. Her use of primary sources, especially Terrell’s diary and papers, allows the reader to experience what she was like. From my vantage point I could tell that Terrell was a feisty woman; this can be seen in Parker’s retelling of an incident when Terrell defended her right to a streetcar seat by slapping a White man. Parker also provides examples of when Terrell went against her principles sometimes because of political convenience. Ultimately, you should read this book if you are interested in learning more about a notable figure who does not get her due and who was a “bridge” leader between the civil rights leaders of the early 20th Century and the leader of the modern 1950s/1960s movement. Thanks to NetGalley, University of North Carolina Press, and Alison M. Parker for a free ARC copy in exchange for an honest review. This book will be released on December 14, 2020. Review first published in Ballasts for the Mind: https://medium.com/ballasts-for-the-m...

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jan

    "Unceasing Militant" by Alison M. Parker is one of the most important books I have read in 2020. Before Brown v Board of Education, there was Mary Church Terrell; before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, there was March Church Terrell; before the lunch counter sit-in's of the fifties and the freedom rides of the sixties, there was Mary Church Terrell. She was a magnificent woman, devoted to social justice and full equality for African Americans and women. Born enslaved in 1863, she died just shy of her "Unceasing Militant" by Alison M. Parker is one of the most important books I have read in 2020. Before Brown v Board of Education, there was Mary Church Terrell; before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, there was March Church Terrell; before the lunch counter sit-in's of the fifties and the freedom rides of the sixties, there was Mary Church Terrell. She was a magnificent woman, devoted to social justice and full equality for African Americans and women. Born enslaved in 1863, she died just shy of her 90th birthday in 1954 still actively involved in civil rights. Mary was the first African American woman to earn a master's degree. She co-founded the NAACP and served on its board for years; she was head of the anti-lynching bureau of the Afro-American Council, she the first president and was active in the National Association of Colored Women and the Civil Rights Congress among many other organizations and was prominent in the Republican party. Remember, in the nineteenth century and early in the twentieth century, the Republican party was the party of Lincoln and tended towards progressive policies toward African-Americans. That stance began to change during the 1920's and by FDR's second term had totally reversed itself. Like many female social justice activists and suffragists, Mary Church Terrell suffers from historical neglect. Her devotion and continuous activism is largely forgotten. Thanks to author Alison M. Parker, we are reminded of the many contributions Mary (also known as Mollie) has made in our society. This book is prodigiously researched and documented. I learned so much from the book. Here are just a few people Mary collaborated with: Frederick Douglass Mary McLeod Bethune Booker T. Washington Margaret Murray Washington (widow of Booker T. Washington) Judge Robert Terrell (her husband and Washington D.C. municipal judge) Susan B. Anthony W. E. DuBois Ida B. Wells Thurgood Marshall Oscar Stanton DePriest (first African American from the North in the U,.S. House of Representatives Madame C. J. Walker Paul Robeson It is appropriate that this book is published in 2020, to honor and celebrate the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment and the Black Lives Matter movement. I encourage you to read "Unceasing Militant". A highlight are the photographs and political cartoons included in the book.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Mandy

    Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was a remarkable woman who led a remarkable life as an activist, so it is astonishing that she is so little known. I hope this in-depth biography will bring her back into the public eye. Born just before the end of slavery, she was an intelligent, educated and feisty woman who devoted her life to campaigning for freedom and equality. It’s a meticulously researched book, with much emphasis on primary sources, including Terrell’s own diaries and letters. Occasionall Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) was a remarkable woman who led a remarkable life as an activist, so it is astonishing that she is so little known. I hope this in-depth biography will bring her back into the public eye. Born just before the end of slavery, she was an intelligent, educated and feisty woman who devoted her life to campaigning for freedom and equality. It’s a meticulously researched book, with much emphasis on primary sources, including Terrell’s own diaries and letters. Occasionally the level of detail felt a bit overwhelming and even repetitive, and I found my attention wandering, but that doesn’t detract from the overall importance of the book. It’s essential reading for anyone interested in the issues Terrell was involved in, and another example of a relatively unknown woman finally getting her due.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    Parker's in depth biography of civil rights activist Mary "Mollie" Church Terrell arrives at a time when America continues to struggle with equal rights for all and provides the historical context for understanding how politics of race and gender have shaped the current conditions. Unspooling American history through the life of this complex individual provides much needed insight into how individual choices and organizational behaviors have brought us to the tipping points of 2020. Parker's exp Parker's in depth biography of civil rights activist Mary "Mollie" Church Terrell arrives at a time when America continues to struggle with equal rights for all and provides the historical context for understanding how politics of race and gender have shaped the current conditions. Unspooling American history through the life of this complex individual provides much needed insight into how individual choices and organizational behaviors have brought us to the tipping points of 2020. Parker's exploration of how the Democratic and Republican parties exchanged roles and perspectives on race equality as well as the formation and interactions of clubs founded and led by women share a compelling view on the politics of equality. A sympathetic investigation of Terrell's personal life and challenges frames her as an individual rather than a legend, but an individual who accomplished legendary achievements and whose name and works should be well known. In addition to presenting the spectrum of Terrell's work and writings, the reader comes to know other significant activists and leaders of the 1910's, 20, and 30's, both people and times that must be known and understood for meeting today's challenges. Well written and extremely well documented, Parker's presentation of Terrell's life and work is a meaningful and much needed book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    MaryBeth

    I received a free advance digital review copy from University of North Carolina Press via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I learned so much about the ground-breaking and fascinating life of Mary Church Terrell from Alison Parker's well-researched biography, Unceasing Militant. Terrell's life spanned nearly a century as she was born during the Civil War and lived until 1954. Her parents, both of whom were born to enslaved women and fathered by their white slaveholders, established the I received a free advance digital review copy from University of North Carolina Press via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. I learned so much about the ground-breaking and fascinating life of Mary Church Terrell from Alison Parker's well-researched biography, Unceasing Militant. Terrell's life spanned nearly a century as she was born during the Civil War and lived until 1954. Her parents, both of whom were born to enslaved women and fathered by their white slaveholders, established themselves as successful business owners after the Civil War, and Terrell became one of the first African-Americans to graduate with a 4-year degree from Oberlin College. Parker traces Terrell's career as a teacher in Washington, DC, and later the first president of the National Association of Colored Women as well as her marriage to a man who truly valued her intellect and her struggles with infertility. Parker describes how the enduring harms of enslavement and racism reverberate into the generations after the Civil War and details Terrell's fierce advocacy for equality regardless of race as well as sex - what scholars now term intersectionality - on the national and international stages. The book is organized topically rather than strictly chronologically, which sometimes leads to information and events being repeated, though there is much to catalog about Terrell's rich life. I hope that Mary Church Terrell's many accomplishments will become more widely known with the publication of this book.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Anne Morgan

    "Unceasing Militant" is the story of Mollie Church Terrell, an activist in women's rights and African American rights her entire life. Spanning from the 1860s to the 1950s, the reader is able to watch the changes (often not for the better) in American white society and government towards African Americans and you can only cheer Terrell on as she refuses to accept anything less than complete equality. A brilliant woman, fluent in at least three languages, a mesmerizing speaker, and a woman sure o "Unceasing Militant" is the story of Mollie Church Terrell, an activist in women's rights and African American rights her entire life. Spanning from the 1860s to the 1950s, the reader is able to watch the changes (often not for the better) in American white society and government towards African Americans and you can only cheer Terrell on as she refuses to accept anything less than complete equality. A brilliant woman, fluent in at least three languages, a mesmerizing speaker, and a woman sure of herself and her worth despite what people around her said, Mollie Church Terrell is an icon who should receive more attention by history. This book was well researched and detailed, providing plenty of detailed information on people and events across nearly a century. While I found the writing often a bit repetitive and the book dragged a bit in places, "Unceasing Militant" should certainly be a must read for anyone interested in American history, race relations, and the brilliant and iconic figure of equal rights, Mollie Church Terrell. I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

  7. 5 out of 5

    Andréa

    Note: I accessed a digital review copy of this book through Edelweiss.

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    Colleen Bavins

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