Archive for September 5th, 2020

talbertst today

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

This post continues the series about the streets around the Frederick Douglass Towers/Talbert Mall and Mary B Talbert Blvd. If you haven’t read the first two parts, I suggest you start with Part 1, about Mary Talbert’s early life or continue with Part 2 about Mary’s life in Buffalo.  Today, we will discuss the legacy of Mary Talbert, and continue the story of the Talbert Mall and the Ellicott Neighborhood.

Mary B Talbert

Mary Talbert (and this commonly used photograph) was  included in Twentieth Century Negro Literature or A Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro, published in 1902.

When we left off, Mary Talbert had died on October 15, 1923.  Her obituary in the Buffalo News called her “probably most noted woman in the world”.

After her death, there were some efforts to save the house at 521 Michigan Avenue.  On the day her obituary ran in the paper, the Buffalo Times also ran an editorial calling for the house to be made a national shrine, saying that “no member of the Negro race ought to knowingly pass it without feeling a deep and solemn sense of gratitude emanating from a reverent heart, for one of the grandest figures in the annals of Negro History in America”.  The newspaper went on to say that she fought to save the Frederick Douglass Home and that Buffalonians should not stand by and lose her own house.  It continued, “In ages hence, when Negro people shall come to Buffalo, the city in which Mrs. Talbert worked and died and ask to be shown the house in which she lived and worked, the house in which she and Dr. Washington used often to exchange vices, what are we to say:  an ingrateful people have allowed the house to rot and crumbled to dust with her.  God forbid!”

In 1926, the Michigan Ave Baptist Church led an effort to try to save the house as a shrine, but was unsuccessful.  At the time, the house was noted for having the “good fortune that two of the greatest leaders of their time, and, indeed all time to come, used to sit and speak of the great questions confronting the negro race”.  The house was one of the oldest in the city and in the 1920s, it was close to 100 years old.

In 1932, two memorial trees were planted at the new Centennial Park (now Lasalle Park, currently being re-branded and reconstructed to become Ralph Wilson Centennial Park).  One tree was planted for Henry Williams, a black man who fought with Commodore Perry during the War of 1812.  The second tree was to honor Mary Talbert.  Dr. Nash spoke at a ceremony honoring the two.  The Negro Legionnaires and the Boy Scouts were involved in the ceremony.


Assemblywoman Crystal People-Stokes laying flowers at Mary Talbert’s Grave in 2017. Source: Buffalo News

In 1935, the National Association of Colored Women laid a wreath on Mary’s headstone.  Mrs. W. Sampson Brooks of San Antonio, Texas, Miss Robert Dunbar of Providence Rhode Island and Miss Estella Wilson of Worcester, Massachusetts accompanied Mary’s daughter Sarah to lay the wreath.

In 1939, Mary McLeod Bethune, another influential Black woman like Mary Talbert, gave a talk at the Michigan Street Baptist Church and inspired a group of local civic, fraternal, political and church organizations to pledge financial support to reclaim and save the house.  Newspapers reported they raised $3,000 ($46,000 in 2020 dollars).


Current view of 521 Michigan Avenue (foreground), Michigan St Baptist Church can be seen to the right of the photo. Photo by Author.

Despite these attempts to save the house, both of the Talbert family houses at 521 Michigan and 515-517 Michigan were demolished sometime between 1940 and 1950.  The site of 521 Michigan is now a parking lot and 515-517 Michigan is a grassy lot. A historical marker was placed at the site of Mary’s house in 1998.  The marker reads:
“Mary B Talbert helped found Niagara Mov’t, forerunner of NAACP, chaired US Anti-Lynching Commitee, delegate to 1920 Internatn’l Council of Women.  1866-1923.”

In addition to Mary Talbert Blvd, her name can also be found on:

  • Mary Talbert Way at UB.  Source:  UB Campus Planning

    Talbert Hall on North Campus at the University at Buffalo(UB), which was built in 1977.  The building is home to the University Honors Program, Bert’s Dining Center,  international student services and classrooms.   Just this week, UB also installed markers on the newly named Mary Talbert Way.  This road replaced Putnam Way, which was named after James Putnam, who was a NYS Senator and UB Council member who held openly expressed racist views.

  • Mary B. Talbert Hospital, Cleveland. Source: CSU Archives.

    Mary B Talbert Home and Hospital in Cleveland was founded as Mary B. Talbert Rescue home in 1925, and provided assistance for unmarried, pregnant women and girls. In 1960, the home merged with Booth Memorial and was known as the Booth-Talbert Clinic. The Clinic closed in 1976.

  • NACW Club Branches were named in her honor in various cities including Buffalo; Detroit, Michigan; Gary, Indiana; New Haven, Connecticut and Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  In Rocky Mount, the Club purchased the first athletic park for Blacks, which they named Talbert’s Park after Mary.  The park was later purchased by the City and still goes by “Stith-Talbert Park”.
  • City Federation of Women’s Clubs Branches are named for her in Florida and Texas
  • In 2000, Child and Family Services named their Main Street Clinic at 923 Main Street in her honor
  • During WWII, emergency housing was built on Clinton Street that was called the Mary B. Talbert Homes. This housing was built for workers (many of whom were Black) coming to Buffalo during the war to work in the war industry.   These houses were demolished after the war.

While Mary’s father-in-law, Robert Talbert, did own property in Oregon, and Mount Talbert is named after a prominent family there.  While there’s some evidence that some of the Talberts may have moved out west, I couldn’t find any evidence linking the Talberts of Mount Talbert with the Buffalo Talberts.  If anyone knows for certain, I’d love more info!

During Mary’s lifetime and into the 1930s, most of Blacks in Buffalo lived in integrated neighborhoods.  While there were groups of Blacks in sections of neighborhoods, most Blacks would report that they had white neighbors and at least one white friend.  The Federal Housing Authority programs during the 1930s and 40s began to change that.  The programs meant that mortgages were not given to Black residents in the suburbs or in white neighborhoods of the City.  The white residents were able to get mortgages to move and establish themselves in modern and more aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods.  As a result of this, combined with the increasing Black populations due to the Great Migration, Blacks were forced to move into the houses vacated by the whites in what was often the oldest and least favorable housing of the city.  This resulted in children going to school with all blacks or all whites, with residents having neighbors of only one color.  Within one generation, Buffalo and become a very segregated city.


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

During the Urban Renewal era, this resulted in Black neighborhoods being declared “slums” and being demolished in hopes of building new projects for people to live in.  When Talbert Mall opened, it was considered to be an urban renewal success.


Talbert Mall in 1959

The Talbert Mall were named after Mary when it opened in 1959.  At first, the apartments reportedly had a strong community feel. In 1964, the tenant council debuted an art show.  German Gonzales was praised for his work – a series of oil paintings depicting “the History of the American Negro”. The apartments became run down and deteriorated quickly during their first decade.


1966 Aerial Photo of Talbert Mall. Note the demolition of properties all around the Talbert Mall property (outlined in red)

During the 1970s, the Talbert Mall had a reputation for issues, particularly gangs. The New York Times and other Northeastern United States newspapers reported about a crime wave through the area during the spring and summer of 1971.  Gangs had taken over the Talbert Mall and other housing projects in Buffalo.  The crime wave at the Talbert Mall prompted 145 families (approximately 1/4th of all residents at the time) to request transfer to another project. Reports of snipers shooting from roofs and robberies were rampant.  Some reported that someone would call the police so that they could shoot at them when they arrived.  Several people were murdered, including a construction worker and a 14 year old boy named Jerry Wise. At the time, 150 of the units were vacant. Mayor Sedita responded through the creation of a Black Squad of police officers to patrol the neighborhood from 8pm to 4am nightly.

In 1973, the Talbert Mall was renamed Frederick Douglass Towers.  As Donn Esmonde reported in the Buffalo News in 2000, someone had thought that we needed to have a housing project named after an abolitionist, and didn’t even realize that we already had named it after a prominent civil rights advocate!

In 1974, Mrs. Carolyn D. Thomas founded the Mary B. Talbert Civic and Cultural Club after she realized they changed the name of the towers because they didn’t realize Mary was a Black woman.  Every year, the Club recognizes individuals or outstanding leadership, commitment and cultural contributions to the Buffalo community.  Mrs. Thomas also founded the Food Bank of Western New York in 1980.

Due to the vacancy, the buildings in the Talbert Mall/Douglass Towers began closing in the early 70s. Occupancy reached it’s lowest point in 1980, when only 221 of the units were rented, less than 30% of all units. During the 90s, 5 of the 12 towers were vacant.  The vacant towers were not boarded up.  In 1992, a mother was beaten to death in the entrance hallway to her building, while her 1 year old was nearby.  Mayor Griffin opened a police substation on the complex in 1993 at 180 Jefferson Ave.  In November 1992, a $4.6 million renovation was completed on one of the towers.  The project took the vacant tower at 515 Clinton Street and replaced it with 59 modern units.  The building became the only building fully occupied on the site.

The City of Buffalo looked to redevelop the entire site in 1996.  At the time, 321 of the units were occupied.  The tenants insisted that any redevelopment plan would require that 321 units be created, one for every tenant currently at the site.  None of them wanted to be displaced.  Many of the families had originally lived in the Ellicott Neighborhood and were shuffled into Dante Place when the Ellicott Neighborhood was demolished.  They were then pushed out again and relocated to the Talbert Mall/Douglass Towers when Dante Place became Marine Drive Apartments.  They did not want to be displaced again.  The tenants worked closely with Norstar Development to come up with a plan they could all live with, with all of the neighbors remaining on site.

In 1999, a $40 million redevelopment was proposed for the complex.  The plan called for demolition of 9 of the towers.  Two towers would be renovated and converted into senior apartments, with 60 units each.  The third remaining tower was the one that had been renovated in 1992/3.  Additionally, new townhouses would be constructed, along with a community center, garden and a park.

In May 2000, demolition of the towers began.  Phase I of the redevelopment included demolition of two towers and construction of 87 town homes.  The street names were added to honor three women who were important to the community living in the neighborhood – Mary Talbert, Mary Johnson and Gladys Holmes.

2002 Aerial photo. Talbert Mall property shown in red. Note that some of the towers had been demolished and new townhouses had been built.

BMHA continues to manage the apartments.  In 2010, the complex held a 50th Reunion party for tenants who had lived there over the years.  In 2017, 87 of the apartments got new kitchens, bathrooms, windows, roofs and heating systems.  The neighborhood is relatively quiet these days, with the exception of families enjoying their backyards and eating at their picnic tables.

Mary Morris Burnett Talbert Marker

In 2005, Mary Talbert was finally inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls.  That year was also the centennial anniversary of the Niagara Movement so it was a fitting time for Mary to be recognized.  At that time, the women of Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs held a tribute at the grave of Mary Talbert.  They were recreating a similar memorial that had happened in 1955 where 100 women gathered for a service and pilgrimage to her grave.

In 2006, a historic plaque was placed in Forest Lawn near her grave.  Some of the funds to place the marker were raised by students at Bennett High School.

As we continue to think about civil rights and what that means to all of us today as a nation, think about Mary B. Talbert and her life’s ambition and fight.  We continue to fight for justice for all people.  And we remember all of those who fought for justice, for those who have died and for those neighborhoods we’ve lost, and we remember Mary as we do.  #blacklivesmatter

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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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