Vibrant Lives. Vibrant Stories.
Mary B. Talbert, 1866 - 1923
This biography was originally released on February 8, 2021 as a part of our on going series titled: Vibrant Lives. Vibrant Stories.
Written by the Staff of The Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor Commission
Mary Morris Burnett Talbert was born in 1866 in Oberlin, Ohio and later attended Oberlin College where she was the only African American woman in her graduating class of 1886. Following her education, Talbert was hired as a teacher and promoted to assistant principal and later principal in Little Rock, Arkansas.
In 1891 she married Buffalonian William Talbert and moved to the city. At that time women were not allowed to be teachers while married, so she gave up her occupation and moved to Buffalo in 1891. However, she did not sit idly as a housewife but rather threw herself into the Michigan Street Baptist Church and various types of activism.
Over the next 35 years, she would become “the best-known colored woman in the United States." In 1899, Talbert was a founding member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club of Buffalo. Phyllis Wheatley Clubs were organizations formed by African American women to champion community improvements as reflected in their motto "Lifting as We Climb."
In 1905, the club operated a settlement house and later invited the NAACP to organize in Buffalo. The club was also responsible for social programs that included feeding the hungry, literacy, and childhood education. The group was also responsible for raising the funds to provide a monthly pension for Harriet Tubman.
In 1905 the Talbert's opened up their home to the founders of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights organization that was vehemently opposed to racial segregation and disenfranchisement. It was in their Buffalo home that W. E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter, founders of the movement, drew up the principles and made plans to hold the meeting across the Niagara River in Fort Erie, Ontario. While the Niagara Movement only lasted a few short years, it would have lasting repercussions in American and Civil Rights histories as it laid the foundation for the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In 1916, Talbert was elected as the sixth President of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs. She was elected to a second two-year term as President of that organization in 1918. Through this organization, Talbert was able to save and preserve Fredrick Douglass’s home in Anacostia in Washington D.C.
Mary B. Talbert died in 1923. She is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery.
We want to thank Dr. Lillian S. Williams for providing the information and context for this biographical piece. See, e.g., Lillian S. Williams, "Mary Morris Burnett Talbert," in Darlene Clark Hine, etal, Black Women in America and Lillian Serece Williams, Strangers in the Land of Paradise.
Dr. Williams has identified and published several collections of records documenting Mary Talbert's life and activism.
If you have additional resources about Mary B. Talbert or the organizations with which she was affiliated, please email us.
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