In 1906 Mary Church Terrell pointed out that Washington DC, the center of American liberty, failed to live up to its reputation as “The Colored Man’s Paradise.” During her speech to the United Women’s Club in DC, Terrell tore apart the slogan. She proved it a misnomer with anecdotes of segregation and discrimination against African-Americans.
At the time, DC was a difficult place for traveling African Americans to find room and board. It was difficult for African Americans to find a place on a tram, in a church, or at the theater. In her speech, Terrell described the loss of job experienced by many of her very qualified friends and acquaintances:
“A colored woman, as fair as a lily and as beautiful as a Madonna, who was the head saleswoman in a large department store in New York, had been discharged, after she had held this position for years, when the proprietor accidentally discovered that a fatal drop of African blood was percolating somewhere thru her veins.”
One hundred and six years after Terrell told that story, we can appreciate that “a drop of African blood,” is no longer “fatal.” Washington DC, though never a paradise for any man, does host the first African American first family. And this month, we look back at the achievements of and the difficulties surmounted by African Americans. This year in particular African American History Month celebrates the theme, “Black Women in American Culture and History.”
Terrell lived from 1863 to 1954 and was well educated, well traveled, and wealthy. Her parents were slaves before her father became a millionaire. She spoke professionally on behalf of women and African Americans, and against lynching and disenfranchisement.
She ended her 1906 speech, “What it means to be colored in the Capital of the United States,” with a lament that treatment of African Americans in DC (and elsewhere) leads to “helplessness and hopelessness” and a loss of “incentive and effort” that even sympathetic white people couldn’t appreciate. But the irony she saw in the capital shone through her last remark:
“And surely nowhere in the world do oppression and persecution based solely on the color of the skin appear more hateful and hideous than in the capital of the United States, because 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, yawns so wide and deep.”
Along similar lines, an exhibit on “The Paradox of Liberty” will explore Thomas Jefferson and his conflicting positions on liberty and slavery. Check it out online or in DC. The exhibit is presented by the forthcoming Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and Monticello.
Source: Man Cannot Speak for Her, Volume II, Compiled by Karlyn Kohrs Campbell