Archive for August, 2020

talbertst today

Mary Talbert Blvd, shown in orange. The Talbert Mall property is outlined in red.

This next series of streets will be streets around the Frederick Douglass Senior Community: Mary B. Talbert Blvd, Mary Johnson Boulevard and Gladys Holmes Boulevard. The Frederick Douglass Towers were formerly known as the Talbert Mall Development, sometimes called the Jefferson Ave Projects. The area is bounded by Clinton, Jefferson, Division, and Spring Streets, part of the Ellicott Neighborhood.

This will be a multi-part series. We will begin with the story of Mary B. Talbert.  Her story will be divided into three parts. This post covers her early life and what brought her to Buffalo. Part 2 covers her life in Buffalo. Part 3 will discuss Mary’s legacy and the legacy of the Talbert Mall.

The Ellicott Neighborhood where these streets are located was historically a mix of Jewish, Italian, and Black families. Twenty-nine blocks of the neighborhood were demolished between 1958 and 1961, displacing 2,219 families and 250 businesses. Here is a map showing the Talbert Mall area in 1950:


Location of the Talbert Mall outlined in red. Sanborn Map from 1950.

The Towers were built in 1957, opened in 1959, and consisted of 12 towers each 7 or 8 stories tall. The buildings were designed by James William Kideney Associates. When they were built, they were named for Mary Talbert. On 16 acres and containing 763 units, the Talbert Mall was the largest of three developments built during this time period. The other developments, include the Ellicott Mall, which we discussed previously, and Kensington Heights, which we will likely cover on another date. It was planned for 3,612 people to live at the Talbert Mall site. The housing that was demolished to build the Talbert Mall was reported to be “the worst kind of blight in Buffalo. The apartments were supposed to be an urban renewal success story. We’ll talk more about what actually happened in Part 3. Here is an aerial photo of the Talbert Mall Towers in 1959 when they first opened:


Talbert Mall in 1959


Mary B. Talbert on Buffalo’s Freedom Wall, portrait by Chuck Tingley. Photo by Author

The Talbert Mall was named after Mary Morris Burnett Talbert.  Mary Burnett was born in born in Oberlin, Ohio on September 17, 1866. Mary was the child of Cornelius and Caroline Burnett.  Of the nine Burnett children, only Mary and her younger sister Clara were born in Ohio, the rest were born in North Carolina.  Cornelius Burnett was born to free parents in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1816. Caroline Nicholls Burnett  was born in 1833 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Caroline was a descendant of Richard Nicolls, the Englishman who captured New York from the Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch in 1664. Nicholls became Governor of New Netherlands.  While he was Governor, New Netherlands/New Amsterdam became New York, as it was now under control of the Duke of York, whom Nicholls served under.

15 South Main

Modern Image of 15 South Main Street in Oberlin.

While still living in North Carolina, Cornelius and Caroline Burnett purchased land in Oberlin in 1860. They hoped to give their family a better opportunity and education in hopes of a better life up North. The Civil War prevented their travel. They arrived in Oberlin in 1866, shortly before Mary’s birth. Mr. Burnett built a two-story building at 15 South Main Street. It became a restaurant and boarding house, run by Mrs. Burnett. It was one of the first hotels in Oberlin. Mr. Burnett also had a barbershop in the building and worked as a barber. The family lived behind the business. The building suffered from a fire, one of the worst in Oberlin history, where many structures were damaged. The building was rebuilt in 1886, incorporating parts of three older buildings. The middle, one-story portion of the building is believed to be the original brick house where the Burnett family lived after the fire. The building was significantly remodeled in 1906 when it became a bank and again in 1980. The building is currently the location of Black River Café. The building is a contributing structure to the Downtown Oberlin Historic District and is known as the Carpenter-Burnett Building.

When Mr. Burnett died in 1896, his obituary called him “one of Oberlin’s best known and highly esteemed colored citizens”. After his death, Mrs. Burnett moved to Buffalo to live with Mary.


Mary Burnett in Oberlin Days. Source: Oberlin Heritage Center.

The Burnett family were respected members of the Oberlin Business Community. Mary graduated from Oberlin High School at age 16 and attended Oberlin College, receiving an S.P. in 1886. She graduated at the age of 19, the only Black student to graduate that year.

In 1894, Oberlin granted a Bachelor of Arts degree to Mrs. Talbert based on her accomplishments and her studies. This degree was granted at this time to many Oberlin students who had previously earned an S.P.(Specialist) degree. She then became a member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae. At the time, she was the only Black woman in the City of Buffalo eligible for admission to the association.

First myth debunked: It’s often said that Mary was the first African American to receive a PhD from the University at Buffalo. However, according to sources, including the UB archivist, this is not true. At the time, UB was only Law, Medicine, Pharmacy, and Dentistry. The College of Arts and Sciences did not exist yet. By the time Mary had died, UB had only awarded 2 PhDs total. Some believe this story began because of the confusion when she received her second degree from Oberlin. Additionally, those who took continuing education at UB at the time were awarded certificates that were called “doctorates”, so Mary may have received one of those doctorate certificates.

state street little rock

Union High School was located on this corner, now parking lots.  Photo by Author.

After college, Ms. Burnett taught in Little Rock, Arkansas for six years, first teaching at Bethel University (which became Shorter University). It was said that she was a born teacher. After a year of teaching at Bethel, she became Assistant Principal of the Little Rock Union High School in January 1887. At the time, this was the highest position held by any women in Arkansas.   (Note from Angela:  I was in Little Rock in March and I was saddened to learn that much of what Mary knew of the city is gone – The site of Union High School is now a parking lot.  The original site of Bethel University is now a Starbucks.  The house where Mary lived in Little Rock is now a vacant one story commercial structure.  I asked the staff members at Mosaic Templars – the African-American museum in Little Rock- and they did not know her, but said they’d look her up.  I hope they’re reading this now.)  Mary left teaching after her marriage but was often asked to reconsider and return to the profession.  Regulations in Buffalo at the time forbid married women from teaching in the public schools.

william talbert

William Talbert. Source: Uncrowned Community Builders.

In 1891, she married William Herbert Hilton Talbert, who went by Will. They were introduced to each other by Mary’s sister Henrietta, who married Will’s brother Robert. Mary and Will were married on September 8th in Oberlin. Harry Burleigh served as Will’s best man. Harry Burleigh, a musician from Erie, PA. Will and Harry had become friends as Harry’s father would pass through Buffalo working on the Buffalo-Chicago run of the Lake Shore Railroad. Harry Burleigh is well known for his compositions, including arrangement of many Negro Spirituals. Both the Talbert and the Burnett families were musically inclined.

Will Talbert worked as a clerk in the City Treasurer’s office and helped managed his family’s real estate holdings. The family’s real estate office was at 79 Clinton Street. Will’s grandfather, Peyton Harris, was one of the early Blacks in Buffalo, settling here around 1833. Peyton Harris came from Powhatan County, Virginia. He served in the Army during the War of 1812. When he came to Buffalo, he worked as a dyer and in the clothing repair business. He had a shop at 21 Commercial Street near the Erie Canal. He was known around town as “Uncle Peyton” and helped to establish the Michigan Street Baptist Church.  On October 3, 1850, Uncle Peyton was part of a group of Black men who resolved to speak out and fight against the Fugitive Slave Act. Their resolution stated: “We unhesitatingly accept the issue forced upon us and of the two evils presented choose the least, preferring to die in resisting the executive of so monstrous a law rather than submit to its infamous requirements…we pledge ourselves to resist the execution of this law at all hazards and to the last extremity”.

Peyton Harris and his son in law, Robert Talbert (Will Talbert’s father) were successful real estate men. They owned many properties, including a large portion of Grand Island. In the 1870s, Peyton Harris was reported to own parcels valued at $12,000. Robert Talbert had gone to California during the Gold Rush and had been successful. Will was born while the family was in California. Robert Talbert invested his gold in real estate in California, Oregon, and New York.

In addition to owning a great deal of real estate, Uncle Peyton is believed to have built the house at 521 Michigan for his family. The house was one of the oldest in the city. Some sources say it was built in 1827, but other sources have Peyton Harris arriving in Buffalo during the 1830s and building for himself to live. Uncle Peyton also built the house next-door in 1845 for his daughter Anna and her husband Robert Talbert, at 515-517 Michigan Avenue.  These houses had stood witness to emancipation and the signing of the 15th Amendment, when the parishioners at the Michigan Street Baptist Church held a large celebration, with a parade through the streets and a dinner at St. James Hall to honor the occasion.  Will Talbert inherited both houses after his mother died. After Will’s death, the houses went to his and Mary’s daughter.

michigan street baptist

Michigan Street Baptist Church

The Talbert and the Harris families were members at the Michigan Street Baptist Church. Uncle Peyton had helped found the church. When Mary arrived in Buffalo after their marriage, she founded the Christian Culture Congress at the Church and served as president of the organization for more than 20 years. Since she couldn’t teach in public schools Mary continued her educational pursuits and established classes at the church. She trained more than 300 Sunday School teachers.

Will and Mary Talbert lived at both 515 and 521 Michigan Avenue at different times, along with other members of the Talbert and Harris families. Mary and Will had one child, Sarah May, born in 1892.

Stay tuned as we cover more about Mary’s life after she moved to Buffalo in Part 2, which you can read here.   And more about her legacy will be coming in Part 3, coming next weekend.

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  1. “3 New Projects to Provide 1724 More Dwelling Units”. Buffalo Evening News. October 30, 1954, pg. 8.”Crime Engulfing Buffalo Project”. New York Times. July 19, 1971, p 26.
  2. “Editorial” Buffalo American. March 4, 1926, p. 2.
  3. “Frederick Douglass’ Properties Handed Over to New Owners!” The Competitor, v.3, no2. April 1921, p 34.
  4. “Death of Peyton Harris” Buffalo Morning Express. Feb 3, 1882 p.4.
  5. “Death Takes Prominent Race Woman” Detroit Independent, October 19, 1923.
  6. “Downtown Oberlin Historic District”. US Department of the Interior, National Parks Service. Prepared by O.H.I.O. 2002. Accessed from ohiohistory.org
  7. “Ghetto Growth Traced” Buffalo Courier. February 16, 1968, p 26.
  8. “Home of William Talbert May be Made a Shrine”, Commercial Advertiser, March 4, 1926
  9. “Housing Site Opens After Renovations”. Buffalo News. Nov 17, 1993.
  10. “Local Woman Benefactor of Negro People” Buffalo Morning Express. July 15, 1923. Sec 8, p1.
  11. “Memorial Tribute” Buffalo Courier Express. July 31, 1935, p 9
  12. “Mrs. Talbert, Champion of A Race, Dead”. Buffalo Express Oct 16, 1923.
  13. “Mrs. Talbert, Local Woman Who Has Worked for Advancement of Race for Twenty-Five Years”. Buffalo Morning Express. Nov, 30, 1919, p.36.
  14. “Negro Women Support Talbert Home Project” Buffalo News. December 11, 1939.
  15. “To Plant Trees Honoring Two Negro Pioneers”. Buffalo Courier. June 1, 1932.
  16. Allen, Carl, et al. “Killing Prompts Tenant Call for Better Security City Safety Official Vows Cooperation at Frederick Douglass Towers”. Buffalo News, November 10, 1992.
  17. Campagna, Darryl and Tom Ernst. “Housing Authority Honors Three” Buffalo News. June 16, 2001.
  18. Culp, D. W. Twentieth Century Negro Literature or A Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro. J.L. Nichols& Co: Toronto Canada, 1902.
  19. Esmonde, Donn. “Buffalo Woman Near Forgotten as Civil Rights Figure”. Buffalo News. Feb 28, 2000.
  20. Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. “Mary Morris Talbert Burnett”. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn NY: Carlson Pub, Inc. 1993.
  21. Locke, Henry. History of Blacks in Buffalo. Buffalo Courier Express, 1973. Booklet found at F129.B8.L7 at Buffalo Library.
  22. Mather, Frank. Who’s Who of the Colored Race: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent, Volume 1. Chicago, 1915.
  23. McNeil, Harold. Douglass Towers Plan Reviewed. Buffalo News. Jan 22, 1999.
  24. Morton, Marian. And Sin No More: Social Policy and Unwed Mothers in Cleveland 1855-1990. Cleveland Public Library, 1993.
  25. Nahal, Anita and Lopez D. Matthews, Jr. “African American Women and the Niagara Movement.” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol 32, Issue 2. July 2008.
  26. Payerchin, Richard. “Oberlin Historians Share Favorites of Forgotten Lore”. Morning Journal. April 29, 2019.
  27. Reif, Michelle. “Thinking Locally, Acting Globally: The International Agenda of African American Clubwomen, 1880-1940”. The Journal of African American History, vol 89, no.3.
  28. Tan, Sandra. Razing of Douglass Towers Heralds Redevelopment of Housing Complex. May 3, 2000.

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