By Tara Mae
Mary Burnett Talbert was a pioneer. Pursuing her goals was a bold move, and while she was frequently the first or only Black woman credited with reaching certain milestones, Talbert made sure she was not the last. Talbert adopted New York as her home state; it was here that she developed her social activism, specifically for suffragist and racial causes.
Born on September 17, 1866, Talbert was the only Black woman in her graduating class at Oberlin College. She was not the first Black woman to graduate from the school, that distinction belongs to Mary Jane Patterson, who in 1862, was the first to earn a bachelor’s degree in the country. By the time she graduated in 1886, it was still considered uncommon for white women to pursue higher education. It was even more controversial for Black women to graduate from such institutions.
After college, Talbert initially worked as an educator in Arkansas, first teaching at Bethel University and then becoming the assistant principal of the Union High School, the only Black woman to have such a job and the highest position held by a woman in the state. She married William H. Talbert in 1891 and moved to Buffalo. She joined the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church and became involved in social, civil rights, and suffrage committees and activities. It was from New York that she created her national legacy.
Women’s clubs tended to be segregated by race, but Talbert saw value in desegregated groups organizing for racial justice and women’s suffrage. She advocated for women working together despite their differences, and through words and deeds, reminded white women that they had a responsibility to support women of other races and ethnicities. Talbert’s involvement in these ventures gave her greater influence in the community and enabled her to expand her outreach. Such clubs allowed women to organize, strategize, and try to consolidate what little clout they had for better social, economic, and political standing. The earliest Black women’s club in America was the Female Benevolent Society of St. Thomas, founded in Philadelphia in 1793.
As women fought for the right to vote and equal rights under the law, Black women were particularly vulnerable to retribution and punishment. Yet, they were among those taking the biggest risks and coordinating members and actions for these causes. Talbert identified these clubs as a means for change, and helped establish many of them. Her activism in New York started at the local level, and by 1901, she was a pillar of her community. At the Baptist Church she created the Christian Culture Congress, a literary club and forum that invited nationally recognized Black leaders, such as Mary Church Terrell and W.E.B. DuBois, to speak there.
Perhaps best known for her work on behalf of and in conjunction with organizations, Talbert also independently fought for the inclusion of Black people to be represented in all aspects of American life. Buffalo was the site of the Pan-American Exposition in 1905. A world’s fair, this occasion was to be a defining moment for the status of the city. Talbert protested the exclusion of Blacks from the planning committee and the lack of Black representation in the exhibitions. As a result, a “Negro Exhibit” was added to the featured events and featured the economic and cultural achievements of Black persons.
Many of the clubs with which Talbert was affiliated became part of or grew out of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC). This umbrella organization, of which Talbert was the sixth president, was primarily focused on advocating and supporting the rights and protections of Black women and children. In many ways the NACWC was more inclusive in its mission than the other primary suffrage organization of the time, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which did not exclude Black women at the national level, but left it to the discretion of local and state branches. The NACWC was interested in achieving voting rights for all citizens, not just white women.
Talbert helped form the Buffalo chapter of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, the first organization in the city to join the NACWC. The club, which still exists today, was created to enrich the lives of Black people and their communities through programs and social reform. Certain chapters worked for desegregation and suffrage.
With her support, the club opened a settlement house and helped develop the first chapter of the NAACP in 1910. Talbert later served on the board and as vice president from 1919 until her death in 1923. In 1921, she became the national director of its anti-lynching campaign. The NAACP came about in part due to Talbert’s efficient energy.
She co-founded the Niagara Movement, its direct predecessor, the aim of which was to combat disenfranchisement and segregation. Born of a secret meeting of more than 30 Black activists who gathered at Talbert’s house to adopt civil rights resolutions, this undertaking helped activate the civil rights campaign in America. Short lived, the movement was still a catalyst for the formation of the NAACP.
Its platform was direct in its objectives and its means to reach them. Helmed by W.E.B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter, it was straightforward in its appeal, eschewing accommodating and conciliatory tenets, espoused by figures such as Booker T. Washington. There were different schools of thought regarding how to best accomplish certain civil rights goals.
Individuals such as Du Bois, Trotter, and Talbert preferred a direct and forthcoming engagement for civil rights. Certain people, like Washington, thought that a gradual accruement of equality was favorable, so as not to anger or unnerve white citizens and thus hopefully limit the threat of retribution. Despite her involvement, Talbert was not an official member of the Niagara Movement, since it did not initially admit women, and then only did so with the reluctant acquiescence of Trotter.
Striving for cooperation and collaboration between white and Black persons, Talbert felt that the only way to make any progress was to have diversified support. As a leader in the intersectional suffragism, Talbert utilized her growing fame as a tool to engage and energize supporters to her cause. Identified as the “best known colored woman in the United States” by her peers, Talbert was fully devoted to anti-racism work, including the anti-lynching movement. She toured the country, speaking out against racism and in support of civil and women’s rights.
Truly someone who embodied the axiom “think global, act local,” Talbert’s suffragette and civil rights ambitions were national, but her approach organically advanced from the micro to the macro level. By expanding her reach from its immediate impact to embracing all of America, Talbert was able to hone her skills and then apply them to the country.
Her ability to flourish in Black spaces and succeed in white spaces gave her insight and understanding of the importance of uniting across state and racial lines. Talbert was adamant in her determination for Black people, including women, to be granted equal rights. To gain support for this endeavor, she addressed and engaged multi-racial assemblies. Her oration skills enraptured listeners and her message was steadfast: organization for the purpose of social, economic, and political betterment.
In 1916, Talbert was named president of the NACWC, a role she held until around 1921. At the International Council of Women’s fifth congress, held in Norway in 1920, she was its Black American delegate. Talbert toured Europe, giving lectures on race relations and women’s rights, and garnering international press attention.
A proponent of engaging the media to harness support for suffrage and racial equality, Talbert used it as a tool to appeal to larger audiences, especially women. Talbert understood that in order for there to be any advancement, there had to be consistent, grassroots support. In an article for the NAACP magazine The Crisis, in 1915 she wrote ”It should not be necessary to struggle forever against popular prejudice, and with us as colored women, this struggle becomes two-fold, first because we are women and second because we are colored women.”
During World War I, Talbert was stationed in France on behalf of the Red Cross. This alone was a feat; the Red Cross only certified about 90 Black women who were then recruited by the army. Upon the country’s entry into the war, Black nurses had initially tried to enlist in the Army Corps of Nurses. They were rejected because of their race. After the influenza pandemic of 1918 killed thousands of people, they were accepted to bolster the weakened ranks. These women risked their lives in conflict, but they still did not have the right to vote for the representatives who decided whether the country went to war.
Talbert sold thousands of dollars of war bonds, offered classes to Black soldiers, and served as a member of the Women’s Committee of National Defense, which maintained war preparedness by uniting different women’s clubs to enhance morale, fundraising, and networking for the war effort. Following the war, Talbert was appointed to the Women’s Committee on International Relations, which chose female nominees for the League of Nations.
She continued to raise the profile of the NACWC. Talbert brought national attention to the organization, when under her leadership, it waged a successful campaign to purchase and preserve Frederick Douglass’ home in Anacostia, D.C. Previous attempts to secure and save the home had failed.
The year before her death, Talbert was the first Black woman to be awarded the NAACP’s highest honor, the Spingam Medal. It is given annually for distinguished achievement by a Black American. She was recognized as the "Former President of the National Association of Colored Women and for continued service to women of color." Talbert died on October 15, 1923. Her impact on race and gender representation resonates to this day.