Mary Burnett Talbert - Table of Contents
Buffalo Woman Near-forgotten as Civil Rights Figure
By Donn Esmonde, Buffalo News Columnist
The Buffalo News, February 28, 2000
Usually we contort ourselves to claim a Buffalo connection for anyone famous. We crow that F. Scott Fitzgerald spent his short-pants years here. We know that Aretha Franklin was a pre-adolescent Buffalonian. Our communal inferiority complex runs so deep, we grope for any connection to the rich, talented or famous.
Yet we've got somebody who lived a monumental life here, and she's buried in collective memory like a historic Erie Canal slip.
Some people have a problem with Black History Month, saying it's a convenient excuse for ignoring black the other 11 months. The thought here is it's better than ignoring it for all 12 months. Twelve months a year, for countless years, that's how long we've all but ignored Mary B. Talbert.
She helped to plant the seeds for the NAACP. Frederick Douglass and W.E.B DuBois sat at her dining room table. She fought for women's rights a half-century before Betty Friedan untied her apron strings. She railed against colonialism in Africa, had an audience with the queen of England and pressured Woodrow Wilson to sign a federal anti-lynching law (he didn't). She blasted segregation 50 years before Jim Crow came tumbling down. She was the first woman to get a doctorate from the University of Buffalo. She was a preservationist who saved Douglass' home in Washington, D.C.
Some experts put her up with Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth as a civil rights activist.
Mary Talbert was from Buffalo, and hardly any of us know it.
There's only one local public building named for her, at UB- but with no plaque explaining who the Talbert in Talbert Hall is. A blue historic sign was finally placed last year at her Michigan Avenue home site, but it was a group from Albany that pushed for it. There was a Buffalo housing project named for her, until some well-meaning but obtuse folks said it needed to memorialize a black historical figure- not realizing it already did. That's how Talbert Mall near downtown became Frederick Douglass Towers.
"They didn't realize who Mary Talbert was." said Jesse Nash, decedent of another prominent black Buffalo family.
She got a touch of renown last year as a supporting character in "City of Light," Lauren Belfer's historical novel of power and corruption in Buffalo a century ago. Talbert is portrayed as a fearless woman who tries (as she actually did) to get an African American cultural exhibit at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. She was predictably ignored by the white businessmen ruling elite.
If there was any justice, they would have named the new East Side school for her a few years ago, instead of an ex-mayor. She ought to be a prime candidate for naming the new courthouse, given her lifelong fight for justice. Her name should be up there with Filmore, Cleveland and Clemens in the local historical roll call.
"They've got the building named after her (at UB), but I'd guess 90 percent of the people out there don't know who she is," said Geraldine Hill-Barkley.
Hill-Barkley is the grandniece of Mary Talbert. Hill Barkley is 76, a retired county worker who lived in a neat single-story house in Tonawanda. A china sugar and creamer set, once belonging to Talbert, rests on the piano. A yellowing picture of the pioneer is folded under the lamp stand, near a book of prominent black women that features Talbert.
Hill-Barkley grew up hearing her mother and grandmother talk of Talbert, who died a month before she was born. The oak table in her family's dining room was the same one DuBois and Booker T. Washington sat at in 1905, planning with Talbert the Niagara Movement- an in-your-face demand for equal rights , equal schools, and integration.
"I remember as a child hearing my grandmother talking about the anti-lynching law Mary wanted, saying that '(President Woodrow Wilson) could have done it with a stroke of his pen,' " recalls Hill-Barkley.
She remembers. Not many others do.
"(Talbert) was a national and international figure, not as iconic as Tubman, but on the same level," said Lillian Williams, historian at the State University at Albany women's studies department.
Many of her essays and letters were lost, which works against her. But some survive.
Talbert, at the 1916 NAACP national conference, said: "No Negro woman can afford to be an indifferent spectator to the social, moral, religious, economic, and uplift problems that are agitated around us."
Her life reflected the words. It's worth remembering.