Mary Church Terrell, known in her family as “Mollie”, was born on September 23, 1863, in Memphis, Tennessee, and she died on July 24, 1954. Her parents, Robert Reed Church and Louisa Ayers, were freed slaves of mixed race. Her mother was an entrepreneur and ran a hair salon. This was believed to be the first hair salon to be ran by a African-American woman. Her father invested in real-estate. He was known as the first African-American millionaire in the South.
In 1891, she married Robert Heberton Terrell. Together, they had three children, two of whom died in infancy. Her daughter, Phyllis Terrell, was the only child who lived to adulthood. The Terrells also adopted one child who was named Mary.
Mary Church Terrell attended Antioch College Model School from 1870-1874 for elementary and secondary schooling. She then majored in Classics at Oberlin College, where she received her bachelor's degree in 1884. Terrell taught modern languages in Wilberforce University. She later moved to Washington D.C. to teach Latin at M Street School. She then studied in Europe where she became fluent in French, German, and Latin.
Mary Church Terrell was one of the few colored women invited to attend the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) meetings, giving her the opportunity to meet Susan B. Anthony. She formally addressed issues within the African-American community, and gave speeches about her own experience as a African-American woman in the nation's Capitol. These meetings sparked a desire in Mary Church Terrell's heart to form a group where African-American women could talk about racial inequalities. She founded the Colored Women's League alongside other colored women, such as Ida D. Bailey. The Colored Women's League focused on promoting the rights of African-American people. From this league, came the birth of the National Association of Colored Women, where Mary was elected as the first President.