March 19, 2018

Preserving This Asymmetrical Home Will Help Commemorate an Activist’s Full Life

If you ever happen to be walking in the Washington, D.C. neighborhood of Le Droit Park, you might come across a quirky, abandoned, asymmetrical Queen Anne home.

This house wasn’t always so visually intriguing—originally part of a duplex, its other half burned down in the 1970s; the home that now stands was saved by a fire wall. But the fire isn’t why this home was listed on the National Register for Historic Places, and it’s only part of the reason why organizations like the D.C. Preservation League (DCPL) have been working to save it for nearly 20 years.

Rather, the lonely house in Le Droit Park has received attention because it was once the home of African American civil rights activist and suffragist Mary Church Terrell.
A historic photo of the Mary Church Terrell house's front and plaster side.

photo by: Library of Congress

A historic photo of the Mary Church Terrell House's front and plastered side, post fire.

Painting of Mary Church Terrell by Betsy Graves Reyneau

photo by: Betsy Graves Reyneau_National Archives_Wikmedia Commons

Painting of Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954) by Betsy Graves Reyneau.

Mary Terrell and her husband, Robert Terrell, lived in their Le Droit Park home between 1899 and 1913. During her time there, Terrell was an educator and a member of the Washington, D.C. school board. She was the first African American woman to serve on a school board in the United States, at a time when schools were still segregated in D.C. When she was a school board member, Terrell worked towards higher quality education, fair hiring practices, and more equitable resources for schools.

Terrell was also a member of several suffrage groups, including the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). She was a founding member and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, and she helped form the NAACP in 1909.

Terrell is most famous for a case she brought against John R. Thompson Co., when she was refused service at one of their segregated restaurants. The case, District of Columbia v. John R. Thompson Co., went to the Supreme Court in 1953. It was one of three cases to help end institutionalized segregation in Washington, D.C., and it was a stepping stone towards the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

Locally, the Terrells were instrumental in desegregating the Le Droit Park neighborhood. According to Jacqueline Drayer, Outreach and Grants Manager at DCPL, the couple “brought a wave of other influential black neighbors with them. They were doing the same sort of work as Mary Church Terrell and Robert Terrell, a lawyer and the city’s first black municipal judge—they were trying to pave the way for greater equality and public life for black Americans.”

The Mary Church Terrell House stands out against other colorful homes in D.C.'s Le Droit Park neighborhood.

photo by: Jacqueline Drayer

The historic home stands out against Le Droit Park's other pastel brick houses, which are typical in a Washington, D.C. neighborhood.

The Mary Church Terrell House was listed on DCPL’s Most Endangered Places List in 1999, which is designed to draw attention to threatened historic places in Washington, D.C. “Although sporadic attempts had been made to restore the home, it has remained perpetually vacant and is […] now in a deteriorating state,” Drayer says.

But a recent windfall may change the Terrell house’s fate. In March 2018, current owner Howard University received grants from the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service to restore the home. The grants total $12.6 million for sites around the country that protect civil rights history. DCPL also received a grant to complete a multiple-property document that uncovers historic resources associated with the 20th-century African American civil rights movement D.C.

The university and local preservationists have long had an interest in restoring the house. Now that Howard has the funds to do so, potential reuse options include creating a visitor’s center for the university or a historic house museum for the Terrells and their civil rights legacy.

Drayer explains that there is plenty of interest within the community for the latter option, “especially in a neighborhood where demographics are constantly shifting, and where new people don’t know how important this home was. With the grant, it looks like Howard might finally have the chance to make the house visible again.”

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Carson Bear is an Editorial Coordinator at the National Trust. She’s passionate about combining popular culture with historic places, and loves her 200-year-old childhood farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

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