COLUMN — A fierce pioneer for the rights of all

Published 9:33 am Thursday, July 23, 2020

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During the Progressive Era, which is defined partly as a difference between the middle class and the working class, new ideas on expressing activism were beginning to engage. Even though opportunities were shut off for women, women like Mary Burnett Talbert used their voices to change that.

On September 17, 1866, Mary Burnett Talbert was born in Oberlin, Ohio and she was one of eight children. She attended public schools and played the organ in church. Talbert adopted her parents’ activist beliefs in giving service to one’s community and that attitude carried her through many avenues in her life. Mary earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Oberlin College in 1886 and was the only African-American woman in her graduating class.

Judy Moore

Shortly after finishing college, Mary Talbert began her educational career first teaching at Bethel University in 1886 in Little Rock, Arkansas. Afterward, she taught in the city’s segregated school system eventually becoming the first African-American woman assistant principal at the Union High School in Little Rock in 1887. In 1891 Mary wed William H. Talbert and moved to Buffalo, New York joining the city’s historic Michigan Avenue Baptist Church. Talbert staunchly advocated for minority women to work together for equality and reminded white advocates about their obligation to support their sisters of color.

Subsequently, Mary Talbert founded the Niagara Movement which spearheaded civil rights activism in America and was the forerunner for the NAACP. Mary was president of the National Association of Colored Women. Furthermore, in 1909 her home was used as a secret meeting place for W. E. B. DuBois, Monroe Trotter and others to adopt the civil rights resolution which led to the NAACP’s establishment. Talbert was its vice president and board member from 1919 until her death. In addition, African American women’s clubs were organized as a forum for women’s voices to be heard and development of leadership skills in spite of the reality of restrictive opportunities in public and civic life. Under Mary’s leadership, organizations sprang up around New York and the rest of the United States. Consequently, in 1899 Mary helped organize the Phyllis Wheatley Club of Colored Women in Buffalo, New York, which was named for the 18th century slave poet. Talbert was a pioneer in historic preservation as well and under her direction the club members purchased  and restored Cedar Hill the Washington, D.C. home of Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and stateman. In fact, she was named president for life of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association.

Before and after World War I Mary used her status to promote equality of Black people at home and abroad. In 1915 she spoke at the “Votes for Women: A Symposium by Leading Thinkers of Colored Women” in Washington, D.C.

During her tours she educated audiences about the oppressive conditions of African Americans and the need for legislators to address these concerns. Talbert toured 11 European nations lecturing on women’s rights  and social discrimination using the press coverage to shed light on these issues.

Mary Burnett Talbert was the first woman to receive the NAACP Spingarn Medal for her lifetime dedication to human rights. Talbert believed that “Negro women cannot afford to be indifferent spectators of the social, moral and economic problems we face.” These words ring true today.

A fierce supporter of uplifting the recognition of Black achievement, in 1901 Mary Talbert challenged the all-white board of the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York requesting for an African American to be appointed as a member and that an exhibit be included that highlights the lives of African Americans and their accomplishments in the arts, business and service to the U.S. In 1917, Mary B. Talbert became one of a handful of African American Red Cross nurses to serve in France after the U. S. entrance into World War I. Also, Talbert offered classes to Black soldiers and led the Third Liberty Bond Drive with her clubwomen raising $5 million for the war effort. 

Sadly, on October 15, 1923, Mary Talbert died at the age of 57. She was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York. A small collection of her family papers is housed in the Research Library of the Buffalo History Museum. Among her numerous deserved honors is her October 2005 induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York as well as clubs named after her.

Mary Burnett Talbert was a tour de force to be reckoned with and in the Progressive Era she was and still is an inspiration to women to stand up, speak up and do by example what is right to bring all to the forefront of liberty and equality in all that we do.

Judy Moore is a member of The Central High Museum who lives in Wylliesburg, VA. She can be reached at