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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.

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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).

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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.

PhotoGrid_1598717935709

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.

1959

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

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

Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  To learn about other streets, check out the Street Index.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

 

Sources:

  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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talbertst today

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

Today, we’re continuing our series looking at Mary B. Talbert Boulevard and the Talbert Mall.  If you haven’t read Part 1, I suggest you click this link to start at the beginning.  Part 2 today will cover Mary’s life while she lived here in Buffalo.  Part 3 will be coming on Saturday, September 5th, and will talk about the legacy of Mary Talbert and the Talbert Mall projects.

When we left off in Part 1, Mary had just moved to Buffalo in 1891.  Will and Mary’s daughter Sarah was born in 1892.  Sarah graduated from Central High School in 1911 and the New England Conservancy of Music in 1915.

phyllis wheatley club

Phyllis Wheatley Club – Source – Library of Congress

In 1899, Mary became a Charter Member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club.  The Phyllis Wheatley Clubs were the local affiliates of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).  Phyllis Wheatley Clubs existed across the country, named after an 18th Century Black poet.  The Club created programs and strategies to advance Buffalo’s Black Community.  The second biennial convention of the NACW was held in Buffalo in 1901.  In 1905, the Phyllis Wheatley Club of Buffalo opened a settlement house to help mothers and give job support to women.  They also opened a house for the elderly and donated books by black authors to the public libraries.

darkest africa

African Village Exhibit on the Pan Am Midway.  Note the Pan Am Electric Tower in the background.  Source: Uncrowned Community Builders

In 1900/1901, Mary Talbert challenged the Board of Commissioners of the Pan American Exposition to appoint an African American to the Board and to include an exhibit on modern Black American life, such as Booker T Washington’s Negro Education exhibit that had been featured in Atlanta in 1895 or WEB DuBois’ Negro Exhibit in Paris in 1900.  She protested the Old Plantation Exhibit, which perpetuated the “happy slave” narrative and the “Darkest Africa” village on the Midway.  Many people came out for the protest, and they were successful, the exhibit was included in the Manufacturing and Liberal Arts Building.  Because the exhibit was added later, it was not included in marketing information about the Pan Am, and little information exists about what was included in the exhibit.

In 1905, WEB DuBois and others met secretly in the home of Mary Talbert.  This began the Niagara Movement.  WEB DuBois invited a group of 54 members from 17 different states to come to Buffalo from July 11-13, 1905 to discuss plans to achieve equality.  Twenty-seven delegates from 13 states and Washington, DC came to the meeting in Fort Erie.  It is often said that the Niagara Movement held its first event in Erie Beach Hotel in Fort Erie, Ontario because hotels in Buffalo would not allow them.  This myth has been debunked and more about that can be found in an article by Cynthia Van Ness that can be found at this link.

The Niagara Movement continued as a series of conferences and publications between 1905 and 1909.  The group was led by WEB DuBois who had a difference of opinion with Booker T. Washington as to the best way to achieve equality.  The “Bookerites”, led by Washington felt that economic prosperity and education were more important than civil and political equality.  WEB DuBois and the Niagara Movement were looking to demand civil rights immediately.  Mrs. Talbert was an acquaintance of both Booker T. Washington and WEB DuBois.  In a letter, Booker T Washington asked his wife to ask Mary Talbert to keep her informed about what was going on with the Niagara Movement meetings and who was attending.  The meetings in July 1905 started at the Talbert home and moved to Fort Erie the next day.

By 1908, the Niagara Movement started to falter.  They suffered from lack of press and lack of funds.  In 1909, a race riot occurred and several Blacks were lynched in Springfield Illinois.  Mobs of white men roamed the city – looting, burning, shooting, and assaulting Blacks.  The riot shook both Black and Whites alike and served as a catalyst for a meeting in 1909 which evolved into the forming of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 1910, as leader of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, Mary hosted a meeting with Jesse Nash, John Sayles (secretary to Mayor Louis P. Fuhrmann) along with WEB DuBois and Fanny Garrison Villard of the National NAACP organization.  This was the start of the Buffalo NAACP chapter, which officially formed in January 1915.  The first president of the chapter was John Brent, the first Black Architect in Buffalo.

Mary Talbert was a Charter Member of the Empire State Federation of Colored Women and later became its President from 1912 to 1916.  She also served as statistician, parliamentarian, Vice President, and President of the National Association of Colored Women.

Amenia Conference NAACP - LOC

Amenia Conference. Mary is in the center of the photo, fourth from the left in the 2nd row.  Source:  Library of Congress

In 1915, Mary was a part of the NAACP Conference, called the “Amenia Conference” in Amenia, New York (near Poughkeepsie) at Joel Spingarn’s estate, Troutbeck.  Joel Spingarn was a Jewish man from New York City who fought for racial justice and was influential in the NAACP, one of the first Jewish members of the organization.  He served on the board of NAACP for more than 25 years, as Chairman of from 1913-1919 and President from 1930 until his death in 1939.  The NAACP’s highest honor award is named after Mr. Spingarn.  This conference was held one year after Booker T Washington’s death, with the hopes of uniting the activist movement with Washington’s contingency.  The attendees agreed to a unity platform at this conference, agreeing to work together on civil rights issues.

Mary Talbert addressing servicemen during WWI. Source: Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota 

Second myth debunked:  It is often written that Mary Talbert served as a nurse with the Red Cross during WWI.  This is not true.  In Mary’s own words, after Armistice for the First World War, she went overseas for four months to serve with the YMCA in the Meuse sector near the Argonne Forest.  Of her time there, she said, “I helped the boys who buried 26,000 American dead…we remained in France until the last American soldier was in a grave properly located and marked”.  Sixteen Black women went to Europe to support the YMCA’s war efforts.  Many organizations did not allow Black women to serve overseas during the war effort.  The YMCA was one of the only organizations to allow them.  The YMCA recruited these women to work with the 400,000 black soldiers stationed in Europe.  These women were called secretaries.  She offered classes and prayers for the soldiers stationed there.  She had led Liberty Bond drives during the war and had raised $5 million to support war efforts.

Mrs. Talbert and other YMCA Secretaries used their war work abroad to help secure participation in international conferences after the war.  Gatherings of many groups were occurring, coinciding with the peace treaty negotiations.  Mary attended the Women’s Peace Conference in Zurich in May 1919, as well as the Congress of Women held in Norway in 1920.  Several black women were forbidden by the US government to attend many of these international peace talks.  The US feared that sending too many “protesters” would draw attention to some of the US government’s deficiencies.  Mary’s influence was strong enough that she was one of the few women allowed abroad.  While she was abroad, she went on a tour of Europe and was a guest of Lord and Lady Aberdeen in England and Queen Wilhelmina in the Netherlands.  Mary Talbert became one of the first black women to join the Women International League for Peace and Freedom.

Mary Talbert was an early supporter of the Dyer Anti Lynching Bill, sponsored by Missouri Congressman Leonidas Dyer in 1918.  The bill would make lynching a federal offense.   She spoke publicly in favor of the bill in 1920, even before the Anti-Lynching Crusaders were founded in 1922.  She traveled thousands of miles across the country speaking to crowds of both black and white audiences.  Her motto was “a million women united to suppress lynching”.  The legislation passed in the House of Representatives in January 1922, but was held up in the Senate due to filibusters by the Southern Democrats.  Between 1882 and 1968, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress.  According to the Tuskegee Institute, 4,743 people were lynched during those years, with almost 70% of the victims being Black.

Mary Talbert described post-WWI Buffalo as “a hard nut to crack”.  Conditions for Blacks had declined.  As the Black population of Buffalo increased, so had the discrimination and segregation tactics by the white residents.  When Mary arrived in Buffalo in the 1890s, the Black population of the city was about 1,100, out of a population of 255,000.  By the 1920s, the Black population had grown as Blacks had come from the south to work in the new industrial production of war equipment during WWI.  After the War, many of those jobs ended.  Employment for Blacks was hard to come by and in the 1920s, many Blacks lived on little to nothing.  Blacks continued to come north during the Great Migration, and the City government did little to help conditions, which were deteriorating in the Black communities.  While Buffalo had nationally known champions for Black rights in people like Mary Talbert and her neighbor Reverend Nash, they mostly ignored the problems that were happening and didn’t use them to help spearhead policy changes that could have helped improve conditions for the Black community.  She was considered to be the most well-known Buffalonian in her time, fighting for change across the country and internationally.  Mary was invited to speak across the country and was published in many newspapers and journals during her lifetime.  The Buffalo Express interviewed her in 1923 and reported that it was likely she was better known outside of Buffalo than inside Buffalo.  She didn’t like publicity and was often very modest about her accomplishments.  In 1920, when she spoke in Cincinnati, advertisements described her as “Our Greatest Woman!  Madam Mary B Talbert.”

In 1921, she spoke in front of the International Council of Women in support of equal right of inheritance for illegitimate as for legitimate children.

10399185-1DD8-B71B-0B3A595790E8119A

Frederick Douglass Home. Source:  National Parks Service

During her time as President of the NACW, the group purchased and restored the home of Frederick Douglass in Washington DC.  On March 5, 1921, the deed to the house was received by Mary Talbert, representing the NACW.  She also served as President of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, which maintains the home.

Mary Talbert Spingarn Medal. Source: Uncrowned Community Builders

In 1922, Mary Talbert was awarded the Spingarn Medal.  This is the highest award of the NAACP, given for “the highest or noblest achievement by a living American Negro during the preceding year or years”.  Mary was present the medal for her continued service to women of color.

Before her death, she had been scheduled to lead a group of more than 200 black clergymen on a tour of the Holy Land and Egypt, but was forced to postpone the trip due to her poor health.

Mary Talbert died on October 15, 1923, of coronary thrombosis.  She was 57 years old.  She is buried in the Talbert family plot at Forest Lawn Cemetery.  Her obituary in the Buffalo News called her “probably most noted woman in the world”.

To learn more about Mary’s legacy and the legacy of the Talbert Mall apartments, you can read Part 3.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  To learn about other streets, check out the Street Index.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

Sources:

  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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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:

PhotoGrid_1598717935709

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:

1959

Talbert Mall in 1959

mARY FREEDOM WALL

Mary B. Talbert on Buffalo’s Freedom Wall. 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.

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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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Sources:

  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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