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(1906) Mary Church Terrell, “What It Means to be Colored in Capital of the U.S."

By 1906 Mary Church Terrell of Washington, D.C., had become one of the most prominent African American women in the nation.  Ten years earlier she was the first president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and from 1895 to 1901 she was a member of the board of trustees of the District of Columbia public school system.  On October 10, 1906 she delivered a speech before the United Women’s Club of Washington, D.C.  That speech appears below.

Washington, D.C., has been called The Colored Mans Paradise. Whether this sobriquet was given to the national capital in bitter irony by a member of the handicapped race, as he reviewed some of his own persecutions and rebuffs, or whether it was given immediately after the war by an ex-slaveholder who for the first time in his life saw colored people walking about like free men, minus the overseer and his whip, history saith not.  It is certain that it would be difficult to find a worse misnomer for Washington than The Colored Mans Paradise if so prosaic a consideration as veracity is to determine the appropriateness of a name.

For fifteen years I have resided in Washington, and while it was far from being a paradise for colored people when I first touched these shores it has been doing its level best ever since to make conditions for us intolerable. As a colored woman I might enter Washington any night, a stranger in a strange land, and walk miles without finding a place to lay my head. Unless I happened to know colored people who live here or ran across a chance acquaintance who could recommend a colored boarding-house to me, I should be obliged to spend the entire night wandering about. Indians, Chinamen, Filipinos, Japanese and representatives of any other dark race can find hotel accommodations, if they can pay for them. The colored man alone is thrust out of the hotels of the national capital like a leper.

As a colored woman I may walk from the Capitol to the White House, ravenously hungry and abundantly supplied with money with which to purchase a

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