Black History Month Reflections: Mary Church Terrell

At Heartland Alliance, we believe that everyone has the right to prosper and reach their full potential. As we continue to bend the arc of time toward justice, it is important to stop and reflect on the trials and tribulations of racial injustices – and to celebrate the leaders who have become symbols for equity and opportunity for ALL people. For Black History Month, leaders from across Heartland Alliance reflected on heroes from the community that inspire them.

As the Director of Asset Management for Heartland Housing, Kandyse McCoy Cunningham oversees the compliance, physical, and financial performance of more than 700 units of affordable and supportive housing for low-income Chicagoans. She chose to reflect on Mary Church Terrell, national activist for civil rights and suffrage and one of the first African-American women to earn a college degree.

Why did you choose this person?

Mary Church Terrell was one of the first African American women to get a college degree. Education is integral in my family. I’m one generation out of public housing. My grandparents and parents always said that education was the component that gets you forward. My mom would say “you have to be better than me” and her mom told her. I used that as a bench mark.

She helped found the Delta Sigma Theta sorority in 1913 – and the sorority’s first public act was participating in one of the largest Women’s Suffrage Marches of the time. As a member of Delta Sigma Theta, Terrell’s achievements are very personal to me.

How do they inspire the work you do today?

Mary Church Terrell was instrumental in organizing black women to march in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She encouraged the ladies to be more than just a social club, but to be activists. Even though the women of Delta Sigma Theta had to march back of the line and endure the added negativity due to their race, they still marched. It made my sorority more than just a social club. I’m still active in that sorority – we are still activists, and we are very dedicated to community service.

We have a housing first philosophy. Housing is the foundation, but I believe – given how I was raised and how I got here – that education is just as fundamental to success. At Heartland Housing, the residents we serve don’t just stop growing with their housing – they take next steps to build their lives. For example, we house formerly homeless families – mostly single moms and their kids – at our Tree Lane apartments in Madison. When I begin to connect with those women, I’ll have a conversation with them along the lines of “now your housed, now what? What’s your next step to get to point A to point B?”

What do you think it will take to get to the future that Mary Church Terrell fought for?

It’s going to take honest conversation, regardless of if it’s unconformable. We need to achieve the truth. The only way to get better as a society is by really understanding each other. This doesn’t have to be politics, but it does have to be connection. No matter how uncomfortable it is.

I believe that to a certain degree, there is already a lot of opportunity – Mary Church Terrell blazed a path for young black women in civil society and in education. We have to follow her lead, and go down some hard paths in order to build even better opportunities for the next generation.

At the same time, there are systemic issues that we absolutely must address. Systemic racism is not as overt, which can be even more dangerous. It can be lost that there is actually a problem, and we have to keep this in our conversations.