The Niagara Movement
By William Evitts
Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society
It can be argued that the 20th Century Civil Rights Movement began in Western New York and adjoining Fort Erie, Canada, in 1905. An African-American organization created here espoused for the first time a modern program of uncompromising protest and demand for change, and led the way for the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) five years later. (note: Here we are using 1910 as the official opening year of the NAACP, though there were preliminary meetings in 1909.)
Dubbed the “Niagara Movement” because of its place of origin, the group was composed of 59 leading African American intellectuals, writers, newspapermen and activists, 29 of whom attended the organizational meeting in Buffalo.
The moving spirit of the group was W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois (1868-1963), the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard, was a professor at Atlanta University and the leading black intellectual of his time. It was he who predicted that the great issue of the coming century was the problem of “the color line.” He was also the foremost of those who rejected the philosophy of Tuskegee educator Booker T. Washington. Washington was the undisputed leader of black America in the eyes of white America, a position he assumed with his famous 1895 speech in Atlanta accepting (for the time being, at least) segregation, eschewing politics, and focusing on hard work, vocational education and black self-help.
The protesters came to Buffalo because it was the eighth largest city in America, with excellent rail connections, and because it was a place associated with the struggle for freedom from slavery. Western New York was remembered as a major crossing point on the Underground Railroad for runaways headed to safety in Canada.
Though Buffalo's black population at that time was small — fewer than 2,000 souls — local people played an important role in the Niagara Movement. Buffalo's Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, its pastor J. Edward Nash, and one of its leading parishioners, Mary B. Talbert, gave great assistance to the protesters. William Talbert, Mary's husband, was a correspondent of Du Bois's. Many accounts say the Niagarites met in the Talberts’ home (located next door to the church), though we know that the three days of business meetings (July 11-14, 1905) took place at the Erie Beach Hotel in Canada. It seems that the group did meet at least once at the Talberts', however, probably before crossing the river. Later, in 1922, Mary Talbert became the first black woman to win the NAACP's prestigious Spingarn Medal. Her medal is in the collection of the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.
Originally the group planned to meet at a hotel in Buffalo. This arrangement fell through, although whether because of racial discrimination (as some maintain) or because of the crush of a huge convention of Elks in town at the same moment, is not perfectly clear in the record. We don't know the name of the hotel. But for whatever reason, the group transferred to Fort Erie at the last minute.
At their meetings the Niagarites formed a network for communication and research and set out to make America aware of the shameful plight of its black citizens. Specifically, they condemned the rising tide of violence (between 50 and 100 lynchings of black men in a typical year), legal segregation (the Supreme Court approved the formula of “separate but equal” facilities in the 1896 case Plessy vs. Ferguson), and voter disenfranchisement. After being founded here, the Niagara Movement went on to hold annual meetings at sites representative of the struggle for freedom — Harpers Ferry, WV; Faneuil Hall, Boston; Oberlin, OH. — and issued annual manifestoes detailing the sorry situation in civil rights. “We are men!” Du Bois thundered. “We want to be treated as men. And we shall win.”
The Niagara Movement lasted only a few years, and never had more than about 200 active members, but its impact was tremendous. By sensitizing Americans to black discontent over worsening racial conditions in the nation, the Niagara Movement paved the way for the creation of the powerful, interracial NAACP in 1910. A murderous race riot in Springfield, Illinois, in 1908 — the year before the centennial of Lincoln's birth — galvanized liberal whites who had connections to the Niagara Movement, people like Mary White Ovington, whom Du Bois had invited to be the first white member of the group in 1908. The Niagarites were a prime component of the group invited to organize the NAACP. The key Niagarite, Du Bois, became the only black member of the founding Board of Directors of the NAACP, and their director of research and publicity.
And a footnote: Booker T. Washington, the powerful opponent of the Niagarites, their ideas and their tactics, sent a spy to report on the meetings in Buffalo. Clifford Plummer, an African American attorney from Boston, couldn't find them in Buffalo, and so concluded that the meeting must have fallen through. He did, however, visit the local offices of the Associated Press and the result was an almost complete blackout of news of the Niagarites in the white press. With Washington pressuring the black press, the protesters found publicity hard to come by - and future historians have found it hard to pin down some details of the organization of the Niagara Movement.