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Fri, 11.27.1857

Robert Terrell born

Robert Terrell

*On this date in 1857 Robert Terrell was born.  He was a Black attorney, teacher and judge.  

Robert Heberton Terrell was born in Orange, Virginia to parents Harrison and Louisa Ann Terrell.  The family moved to Washington, DC in 1865 after the end of the Civil War and emancipation.  His father Harrison Terrell worked for prominent businessman. Later he served as the personal valet for General Ulysses S. Grant. These connections aided the younger Terrell in his education and later career.  

Terrell was educated in the public schools of the District of Columbia. He attended the private, preparatory Groton School in Groton, Massachusetts. He was admitted to Harvard University, where he graduated as one of seven Magna Cum Laude scholars in 1884.  While teaching for several years at the M Street School in Washington, DC, on October 18, 1891, Terrell married Mary Eliza Church. The two met at the Preparatory School for Colored Youth, now known as Dunbar H.S.  This was a premier academic high school in a segregated system.  After receiving his LL.B. degree in 1889,  Terrell was a participant in the March 5, 1897 meeting of the American Negro Academy, to celebrate the memory of leader Frederick Douglass.  From the founding of the organization Terrell remained active among the scholars, editors, and activists of this first major African American learned society.

He worked with them to refute racist scholarship, promote Black claims to individual, social, and political equality, and publish books and articles on the history and sociology of Black life.  In 1889, Terrell was appointed the chief of division, Office of the Fourth Auditor of the U.S. Treasury Department.  In 1896, Terrell began a partnership with John R. Lynch to create the law firm of Lynch and Terrell in Washington D.C. Their firm closed in 1898, when Lynch was appointed "a Major and Paymaster of volunteers to serve as such in the Spanish American War.  In 1899, Terrell returned to the M Street High School as principal.

He left in 1901 accepting an appointment to serve as a justice of the peace in Washington D.C.  This marked a difficult time for Terrell and other Black leaders. Although Republican administrations appointed Terrell and other African Americans to certain high-ranking political positions, they did not work to achieve greater civil rights to Blacks, especially those millions oppressed in the South by Jim Crow laws.   In 1911, Terrell was appointed to the Municipal Court of the District of Columbia. He also received an appointment as a faculty member at Howard University's School of Law, while still serving as a municipal judge. In February 1911 he became a charter member of the first Washington D.C. chapter of Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, an organization of professional men who were college educated. He continued to teach at Howard until he died at his home on December 20, 1925.  

Terrell's obituary was featured in The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He is described as "a good fellow...tall and healthy to look at; a lover of men, of his social class, of a good story with a Lincoln tang to it."  In 1952, the Robert H. Terrell Junior High School, named in his honor, opened at 100 Pierce Street, NW, Washington, DC.  This school was closed in 2006 and demolished in 2008. The site was redeveloped for the R. H. Terrell Recreation Center, also named for him, which opened in 2009.  

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