Document 4: Terrell Receives Honorary Degree from Oberlin College
Author: Mary Church Terrell
Date: 14 June 1948
Location: 1948 Daily Desk Diary Appointments Memoranda Reminders, Mary Church Terrell Papers 30/438 Diaries, O. C. A.
Document Type: Autograph Document
This document is an entry from Mary Church Terrell’s diary on the day of commencement at Oberlin College in 1948, when she received an honorary degree. President William Stevenson asked if she would accept this degree on 26 April, and the same day she accepted an honorary degree from Howard University, calling it a “Thrill That Comes Once in a Lifetime.”1 Going on to praise her fortune, she wrote, “Thank God_ It has come at last! … God is good to me_ Few women received 2 degrees.”
The “at last” aspect is particularly worth noting, given that Terrell was previously considered for an honorary degree in 1935, on the 100th year of admitting Black students.2 In a transcription of a letter written to a friend after receiving news of getting the degree, Terrell wrote, “Although I am human enough to like any recognition which may come to me if I think I deserve it, still I wanted some colored woman to receive a degree at Oberlin’s 100th anniversary, as a sort of vindication or justification of the faith which the founders of the college reposed in the race while it was still enslaved.”3
Underscores are transcribed because Terrell used them like commas, dashes, and periods.
Oberlin College Confers Honorary Degree Doctor of Hymnary Letters-First colored woman to receive at college, 115 yrs [sic] old
A great event in my closing life_ at 8:45 I went to Finney Chapel to be shown what to do by Prof. Love_ Arise when Prof. Hibbard4 arises. Walk to 2nd Chair_ When she finishes walk to President Stevenson who will make a citation5 and give me a diploma_ walk to have hood put on by [her?] professors, one on each side_ Prof. Hope Hibbard made a magnificent citation which will be sent to me So will the President’s_ Picture taken with President and the recipients of Honorary Degrees_ Left my diploma_ was in depair_ Young [illegible] promised to have another made_ Phyllis got a cab to take me to Fields House to the luncheon Several professors waited to take me while she went to get cab_ Sat on dais by Prof. Graham retiring_ Mrs. Stevenson6 came up to the dais and kissed me in the presence of that large crowd_7 Interesting talks after luncheon_
Phyllis and I rushed home to the hold packed and took 5P.M Bus for Cleveland_ Off at Public Square_ Taxi to B.O_ Sandwich Milk and [illegible] pie! Good seats_ Slept all night.
1 William Stevenson served as president of Oberlin College from 1946 to 1959. As seen in previous documents, his policies and actions are far more liberal than past presidents; 26 April 1948 diary entry,1948 Daily Desk Diary, Mary Church Terrell Papers 30/438 Diaries, O. C. A.
2 Anna B. Kinsman wrote W. F. Bohn on 18 March 1935 to recommend that the Board of Trustees consider Terrell for an honorary degree, given that the Oberlin Women’s Club would “strongly favor such action…Several of her friends here and elsewhere (including Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt) have been asking about it…We do feel feel so strongly the merits of her lifelong service to her race that I venture to write you.” In a letter from Bohn to Kinsman, Bohn writes on 22 March 1935, “I may say that there is an additional reason for considering her name this year, in the fact that 1935 is being celebrated as the 100th anniversary of higher education for Negroes in this country” (Student File: Mary Church Terrell, Folder 2, O. C. A.).
3 The letter is undated and without a designated recipient.
4 Associate Professor of Zoology from 1930 to 1961.
6 Eleanor Bumstead Stevenson (1902-1987), William Stevenson’s wife.
7 It is clear that this was the most memorable moment for Terrell during commencement. Four days later, she wrote in her journal on 17 June 1948, “wife of the President of Oberlin College upon set a fine example to the young women students which I am sure some will imitate / It goes without saying that I shall always remember the manner in which you greeted me on the dais at the luncheon. I referred to the fact that she kissed me_” Later she wrote that she sent $100 to the Oberlin fund (1948 Daily Desk Diary, Mary Church Terrell Papers 30/438 Diaries, O. C. A.).