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Posts Tagged ‘Ellicott Neighborhood’

JFK parkToday’s post is is a little different.  We’ll be learning about JFK Park.  Unlike most of our posts, we’re not going to look much at the person for whom this was named, but rather the circumstances that created the park.  You can google President John Fitzgerald Kennedy if you’d like to learn more about him – there are plenty of books, movies, documentaries about him – see Note 1 for recommendations.    JFK Park and the Community Center were created in the 60s, and, like many things built following President Kennedy’s death, named after him.

I spent the summer knee-deep in the history of the neighborhood surrounding the park, researching for the blog.  I have written about the Ellicott Mall on one end, and the Talbert Mall on the other.  To learn more about the Ellicott and Talbert Malls, and about the namesakes of some of the streets that run through this area, you can read the following posts:

20201004_152725JFK Park fills most of the space between the Ellicott Mall and the Talbert Mall. This is also my neighborhood park, and I’ve spent a lot of time here the last few months during the pandemic.  I walk through the park often during my daily walks. Sometimes, I’ll bring a blanket to sit and read while listening to kids play in the playground and (during non-pandemic times) on the ballfields, basketball court, pool, and tennis court.  The photos I’m sharing here lack people out of respect for not wanting to post pictures of children without consent, but even during the pandemic, this is a well used and well-loved park.  It also serves as recreation space for the JFK Community Center, Bennett Park Montessori (PS #32), and Buffalo Elementary School of Technology (PS #6).

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427 and 429 N Division

This is also the place where my Italian immigrant family’s roots here in Buffalo started.  My Great-Great Grandparents Anthony and Angeline Valerio lived across Hickory Street from what is now the park, at 429 North Division Street.  Anthony and Angeline’s daughter, my Great Grandma Susan married my Louis Violanti at St. Columba Church in September 1927.  The church has merged with St. Brigid’s and has built a new building, but it is still located near the same spot on Hickory, across from JFK Park.  The Violantis moved into 427 North Division Street, located right in front of the Valerio’s house at 429 North Division, along with Louie’s parents – my Great-Great Grandparents Joseph and Rosie Violanti.  My Grandpa, Joe Violanti, was born on the kitchen table at one of these houses in December 1928.  One generation later, the entire neighborhood as they knew it was gone.

This neighborhood was called the Ellicott Neighborhood.  It’s a name that isn’t used much anymore.  Sure, there’s the Ellicott Council District, but you don’t hear people refer to the neighborhood as much any more.  It may have had earlier names as well, before it was called Ellicott, I often struggle to find information about historic neighborhood names.  If you know, I’d love to learn more.  Like much of the East Side, it’s identity is lost and it’s lumped into a larger area.  It gets assigned a vague description “the area between Downtown and Larkin”.  It was demolished, and therefore lost much of its identity.

This park that I love so dearly was 7 blocks of active city life.  In 1950, the neighborhood looked like this:

jfk PARK 1950

Sanborn Map of JFK Park area in 1950

In 1950, there were 253 buildings with the following uses: 36 stores, 3 schools, 2 restaurants,  2 churches, 1 synagogue, 1 junk exchange, 1 contractor’s yard, 1 filling station, 1 clubhouse, 197 private dwelling units,  4 buildings of flats, and 3 apartment buildings.  At the time, a private dwelling referred to a building that was home to up to two families, flats referred to a frame structure where a family occupied each floor (the common Buffalo upper-lower houses).

288 south divison - wny heritage

288 South Division Street in the 1950s. Now part of JFK Park. Source: WNY Heritage

What remains of those 253 buildings?  Just two buildings, both are schools –  the former Technical High School, now administrative offices for the Buffalo Public Schools and other is PS 6, still an active elementary school.

In 1950, the average household size in Buffalo was 3.4 people per dwelling unit.  Assuming that there were 2 units in each of the flats buildings and 4 units in each apartment building, that gives a conservative population of about 737 people on these seven blocks.  (For comparison’s sake, the average number of people per dwelling unit in 2018 is 2.24)

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Example of houses stacked on a lot. Picture houses on either side of these houses as well to picture how dense the neighborhood was.

This is just 7 blocks, and we demolished at least 32 blocks of this area, basically everything surrounded by William, Jefferson, Swan, and Michigan. Picture if the Allentown Neighborhood was shifted from north of Downtown to just east of Downtown, that’s about how dense the Ellicott Neighborhood was, except it was actually even more dense.  A common thing in this neighborhood was houses stacked on lots – so there’d be both a front house and a back house on the lot.  You can still see evidence of this on some of the blocks there weren’t completely demolished, and on the historic maps showing just how many houses were crammed onto these blocks.

“Urban Renewal” is typically used to refer to a series of programs that were used by cities in the middle of the 20th Century to address urban decay in cities.  The programs cleared out blighted areas of cities by clearing out areas that were declared slums.  The programs were designed to replace the “slums” with new, higher class housing and new businesses.  Often, the projects were implemented by local public housing authorities, which is the case in the Ellicott Neighborhood Redevelopment projects.

Most urban renewal programs involved municipalities taking land within a designated urban renewal area by purchasing properties or taking the properties by eminent domain.  The properties would then be razed and selected developers would build a new development on them.

The Housing Act of 1937 created the US Housing Authority, a federal corporation able to loan money to states and local governments to build housing for those unable to find suitable housing themselves.  Under this act, one housing unit of slum clearance resulted in one unit of new modern low-income housing built.  About 150,000 units of housing were built across the country under this act before the start of WWII.  Most of the housing authorities found that new housing alone was not enough to remove the slums and provide urban redevelopment.  The new housing often became the new slum a few decades after it was built.  The idea became that we need urban renewal- including housing, zoning, schools, enforcement of health standards, transportation, and minimization of racial restrictions.

The GI Bill (The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act), passed in 1944, allowed veterans to obtain mortgages, allowing many to purchase houses in the suburbs.

The Housing Act of 1949, also known as the Taft-Ellender-Wagner Act, provided loans to cities to acquire and clear slum areas to be sold to private developers to develop under a plan prepared by the city.  The act also provided grants to cover up to two-thirds of the city’s costs.  Under this act, the programs implemented were known as “urban redevelopment”.

The Housing Act of 1954 made these projects more profitable by providing mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration.  Programs implemented under this act were known as “urban renewal”.

The first major modern Urban Renewal project was completed in Pittsburgh in 1950.  This project demolished a portion of Downtown Pittsburgh and converted it to parks, office buildings, and a sports arena (the former Mellon Arena).

Urban renewal programs had an immense impact on our cities.  Highway construction was often a part of urban renewal programs – getting cars out of crowded city streets and routing them onto highways to allow people to get places more quickly was the reason so many urban highways were built during this era.  These highway projects had the additional consequence of exacerbating sprawl, as they allowed people to live further away from Central Business Districts in the suburbs and commute to work via the new highways.

20201012_164131In 1955, Buffalo Common Council designated the 160-acre Ellicott District Redevelopment Project Area to be totally cleared and rebuilt except for religious and education buildings.  I have heard that this was the first Urban Renewal project in New York State, but I could not verify.  In December 1957, a $10 Million Capital Grant (approximately $92 Million in 2020 dollars) was funded to begin to acquire the 1050 parcels and relocated residents and businesses.  In 1961, a $600,000 ($5 Million in 2020) addition was added to PS 6 and $450,000 ($4 Million in 2020) in renovations were completed a the Former Technical High School (at the time, it was Clinton Junior High).  25 acres were set aside for the $1.5 Million ($13 Million in 2020) Elliott District Recreation Center, which became JFK Park.

The Urban Renewal Area was appraised in 1959 and there were 2,219 households in the area.  Average household size was 4 people, and a total population of 8,836 people.  There were 1004 parcels, 1447 improvements (buildings), and 2,215 dwelling units.  Most of the dwelling units were 2 and 3 family buildings.  Seventy percent of the buildings in the area were classified as substandard.  When inventoried, there was only a vacancy rate of 2% throughout the neighborhood.  There were 81% rental units and 19% owner-occupied units.  At the time, the City considered a slum and blighted area to be when there were fewer than 45% owner-occupied units.

Relocation continued for 27 months.  In total, 1600 family groups and 400 roomer households were relocated.  Others had left on their own volition when they saw the writing on the wall, or just the normal course of moving due to life circumstances.  The average household size of households relocated by the government was 3.14 people.  The average length of time of residence before relocation was 7 years, with owners having a longer tenure in the neighborhood than the renters.  Black owners in the neighborhood had lived there an average of 12 years.  The white owners in the neighborhood, in particular, had lived there for a long time, with 50% of white owners being 60 years or older and 67% of them had lived in the neighborhood 20 years or more.  Most of the relocated families, approximately 70%, remained in the Ellicott District or moved north into the Masten District.

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Graphic showing the “problem neighborhood” as an octopus

The housing here in the Ellicott Neighborhood was some of the oldest in the city.  Most of the housing was a typical 2.5 story frame structure with a peaked roof and a front porch that you see throughout Buffalo.  It was run down and crowded.  The Ellicott Neighborhood was labeled as the highest in the city in terms of crime, delinquency, disease, and mortality.  In the 1950s, Buffalo was the 15th largest city in the Country, but still had the same boundaries as it did in 1854 (and basically still same area today).  As Buffalo grew, many people were tired of the crowded dirty inner-city neighborhoods.  Swan Street, just south of here, was once the fashionable neighborhood where “important” people lived – Mr. Blossom, Mr. Tillinghast, Mr. Pratt, to name a few. The rich started to move out to areas where they could have larger houses in the Elmwood Village or mansions along Delaware Avenue.  Even regular folks started to want to move into houses in newer, less crowded sections of the City.  The blocks between Seneca Street and the Thruway were particularly run down during the 1950s because they had originally been designated as the route of the NYS Thruway.  The Thruway shifted south to the railroad corridor, but structures had seen little maintenance and improvements as they had been planned for demolition for highway construction.

Redlining by banks allowed mortgages for white people to move to new houses in newer sections of the city, or in the suburbs.  Mortgages and housing loans were not granted to Blacks.  This meant that the worst, most crowded housing was often all that Blacks moving to the North during the Great Migration could afford, mostly the housing that was being left behind by those moving into the newer neighborhoods.  This furthered decline in the Black neighborhoods as there was no new money coming into the neighborhoods or new investments happening in the neighborhoods.

The City of Buffalo had at least 44 Urban Renewal Plans.  The “Ellicott District Redevelopment Project” was approved by Common Council on August 2, 1957.  The area was described as “predominantly residential in use but characterized by predominance of substandard and insanitary dwellings, the infiltration of mixed commercial and industrial uses, obsolete subdivision, undesirable street layout and traffic hazards, overcrowding of families, and inadequate public utilities and community facilities”.   The plan was to divide the land use in the area as follow: medium density housing suitable for middle-income and lower middle income families (63.18 acres), expansion of public schools and public recreation areas (26.99 acres), community business districts (8.31 acres), existing public school sites (6.94 acres), land for expansion of existing charitable organizations (13.12 acres), existing charitable institutions (3.07 acres), and streets (39.78 acres).  (161.39 acres total)

My Great Grandparents, they moved to South Buffalo.  Their new house on Ladner Avenue was much closer to Great Grandpa’s job at the steel mill and they were able to own a large two-family house, with lots of land around it for Great Grandpa Louie to grow his large gardens.  South Buffalo was kind of like the suburbs back then, but easily accessible via streetcar.  Their house was at the end of a row of houses, with nothing beyond their home except fields.  My other set of Great Grandparents lived one street over, on West Woodside, and the two families would cut between the fields to get to each other’s houses.  I am not sure of the exact circumstances of their move.  At the time, there was a lot of discrimination against Italians, but my family was likely able to benefit by their ability to purchase a home outside of the crowded inner city.

20201021_161343Robert T. Coles, the Buffalo-born architect, wrote his thesis in 1955 at MIT about a plan for Recreational Facilities in the Ellicott Community Renewal Area.  In 1960, Robert Coles returned to Buffalo and was placed in charge of programming, design, and construction supervision of the recreation center that became JFK Community Center.  The Rec Center building is a great example of Coles’ modern architecture style.

The lead demolition contractor on the project for the JFK Park project was Schwab Brothers.   The Schwab Brothers were a demolition company from Buffalo that eventually had offices across the country – they became the largest demolition company in the country and held the demolition contract for the old Madison Square Garden and the old Yankee Stadium.  Robert Coles teamed up again with Schwab Brothers to form Mid City Gardens, Inc, which designed the Mid City Gardens Apartments.  The plan that had been created for the Ellicott Redevelopment Area was determined not to be urban enough for the area, so the Schwab Brothers proposed their plan.  The plan looked at closing streets to prevent traffic congestion and keep local traffic moving – Clinton Street was disconnected from Downtown at this time, making William Street the main east-west thoroughfare to serve this neighborhood.  William Street was widened at this time to its current configuration.  Mid City Gardens consisted of 1,370 dwelling units and off street parking for each unit.  The units were in a combination of high and low-rise buildings with “breathing room” between them.  Two-story garden apartments were grouped with their own parking area and play space.  There were 616 units in towers and 74 in garden apartments.  The towers consisted of 77 units ranging from studios to two bedrooms and the garden apartments were two-story 3 and 4 bedroom units.

What eventually got built was garden apartments – the Ellicott Park Apartments, Towne Gardens, etc and single-family housing along William Street.  Clinton Street was eventually reconnected through to Michigan and single family housing was built along there as well.  The neighborhood is still home to three schools, five churches and is anchored by JFK Community Center in the middle of it all.

In the 1960s, novelist James Baldwin called Urban Renewal “Negro Removal”, after the way that the programs targeted neighborhoods primarily lived in by Blacks.  As we’ve looked at in our previous posts about the Ellicott Mall and the Talbert Mall, the housing projects created by Urban Renewal programs were often not successful.  High-rise towers often saw an increase in crime.  The buildings were built quickly and inexpensively, so they often were run down quickly, without money to cover maintenance costs.  While I covered an overview of urban renewal, this is by no means a conclusive study and I recommend looking into other sources for additional information.  Public housing projects were built and demolished in many areas, not just in Buffalo (See Note 3 for additional resources).

20201021_161218So the next time you’re walking through JFK Park, or any park or neighborhood, think about what used perhaps used to be there.  Neighborhoods change over time, both my forces we can control and by those we cannot.  Our cities are built on what came before.  There might be more to the story than what you first see.  A peaceful park might have been a whole neighborhood that no longer exists.  Take a moment and remember.

We’ll be back to talking about streets in my next post – which will about William Gaiter Parkway.  Some of you may remember Bill, who was a founder of the Juneteenth Festival here in Buffalo.  Stay tuned for that!  If you’d like to learn about additional streets, please check out the street index.

Note 1: If you’re looking for a biography about JFK, I recommend An Unfinished Life:  JFK 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek or Jack: A Life Like No Other by Geoffrey Perret.(Side Note from Angela:  in addition to Buffalo history and streets, one of my other hobbies is reading political biographies.)

Note 2: You can read the City of Buffalo Urban Renewal Plans here: City of Buffalo Planning Library

Note 3:  For more information about public housing and urban renewal , I recommend watching the following documentaries:  The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, about a housing project in St. Louis, Ken Burns East Lake Meadows, about a housing project in Atlanta, and James Baldwin’s Take this Hammer about San Francisco.   For more about what happened locally, I recommend reading Partnership for the Public Good’s report:  A City Divided:  A Brief History of Segregation in Buffalo.

Sources:

  • US. Department Of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.  “1950 Census of Population Preliminary Reports:  Characteristics of the Population of Buffalo, New York”.  Washington, D.C. May 14, 1951.
  • City of Buffalo.  “Redevelopment Project for the Ellicott District Redevelopment Project”.  August 2, 1957, as amended Oct 5, 1971.
  • Cities Under Austerity:  Restructuring the US Metropolis.
  • Coles, Robert T.  Community Facilities in a Redevelopment Area.  Thesis submitted for the Degree of Master of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, September 1955.
  • Rashbum, William and Charles Bagli. “Demolition Man”.  The New York Times.  July 23, 2009.
  • “MidCity Gardens:  A Proposal for the Ellicott District Redevelopment Area” Schwab Brothers – Developer, Robert T Coles – Architect.  undated.  From the Collection of the Grosvenor Room, Buffalo Library – HT177.B8 S34
  • Davidson, Mark and Kevin Ward.  Cities Under Austerity:  Restructuring the US Metropolis.  State University of New York Press, Albany.  2018.
  • Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.  Ellicott Relocation:  A Preliminary Report.  March, 1961.
  • Brown, Harris, Stevens, Inc.  Appraisal Report Ellicott District Urban Renewal Area, Buffalo NY.   Prepared for the Board of Redevelopment, City of Buffalo.  April 14, 1959.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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 had 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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