Thursday, June 23, 2016

Mary Church Terrell Honored at Old Hecht's Building

Mary Eliza Church Terrell's lifespan bridged several important chapters in American history; the Civil War (born in 1863), Reconstruction, Women's Suffrage, double World Wars, the Great Depression, and the modern Civil Rights era (died in 1954). Terrell was a teacher and principal in DC (at a school that eventually become Dunbar), served on the school board here, founded the National Association of Colored Women, helped found the NAACP, fought segregation as a member of the AAUW, and became one of the most important voices and strategists for the women's suffrage movement, especially for black women. 

Part of Terrell's work in DC was her push to desegregate a Hecht's store lunch counter at 7th and F NW (and Murphy's, and actually all retail stores). Her work eventually paid off. Hecht's changed their discriminatory practices and the District later outlawed the racial segregation of public spaces. In the broader scheme, the U.S. Supreme court issued the Oliver Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision just a year after her death. Brown v. Board reversed 1896's Plessy v. Ferguson and cast racial segregation as unconstitutional. 

The Hecht's store eventually moved elsewhere in the District, but the beautiful building remained. In 2003 developer CarrAmerica renovated the building and reopened it as part of a block-long complex of offices and retail stores along 7th St NW (between E & F Streets). They decided to name the complex Terrell Place in honor of Mary Church Terrell. 

Recently, a nice set of plaques were placed on the northwest corner of the old Hecht's building that honor Terrell. I love this because even though the building is already named after Terrell, the informative displays really give context as to why she is important to this particular place, in the District, and to American history. Very cool.