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
Revised September 16, 2021
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. This was the highest ranked position held by an African-American woman in the state at that time.
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. She was a strong advocate in the anti-lynching movement, various anti-racism movements, and a supporter of universal women's suffrage.
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 Phillis 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." The Buffalo Chapter developed programs to feed the hungry, donated books by Black authors to school libraries, established kindergartens for black children and organized “mother’s clubs” to teach parenting skills. The campaign to project an image of Black women and black people generally that refuted the charges made by James Jacks was an inherent component of all of their programs. 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. The movement stood apart from other black organizations at the time because of its powerful, unequivocal demand for equal rights. The Niagara Movement forcefully demanded equal economic and educational opportunity as well as the vote for black men and women. 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.
Do you have an idea of who we should include in our series?