Mary Burnett Talbert is a name unfamiliar to most, but during her time she would be known by many titles: civil rights activist, suffragist, preservationist, human rights advocate, educator, wife, Buffalonian and more.
Born, raised and educated in Oberlin, Ohio, Mary Burnett Talbert would go on to live a life much bigger than her small hometown. The only woman of color in her class, Talbert graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Oberlin College in 1886. After graduation she was presented with a job offer: to teach high school science, history, math and Latin at Bethel University, in Little Rock Arkansas. Within a year she was promoted to Assistant Principal of the Little Rock Union High School making her the only black woman to hold the position and the highest ranking women in the state of Arkansas at the time.
Three years later, she married William Talbert and moved with him to Buffalo, NY. It was here that her role in both the civil and women’s rights movements would get its start. “It should not be necessary to struggle forever against popular prejudice, and with us as colored women, this struggle becomes two-fold, first because we are women and second, because we are colored women” Talbert once wrote. Adept at motivation, organization and full of determination Talbert went to work stumping for the things she believed in. She was one of the founding members of the Phyllis Wheatley Club (the first club in Buffalo to gain affiliation with the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC)), sole founder of the Christian Culture Club at the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, and instrumental in the forming of the Niagara Movement; a club which helped organize the first chapter of the NAACP (1910), to which Talbert was a founding member and would serve as vice president and board member from 1919 until her death in 1923. But that’s not all, in 1908 she became a charter member of the Empire State Federation of Colored Women, and eventually went on to serve as their parliamentarian and president. From 1916 to 1921 Talbert served as president to the NACWC and represented the organization as the first black delegate to attend the International Council of Women in Norway. Talbert was later voted president of the National Association of Commission for Women, an organization which aims to sustain, strengthen and advocate for women’s commissions in their work to promote equality and justice for all women and girls. During her tenure, Talbert transformed the organization giving it structure, order and procedures. Her first major undertaking, the purchase and restoration of abolitionist and civil rights activist Fredrick Douglass’ birth home in Anacostia, MD. Once completed, she was elected the Fredrick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association President for life.
Mary Burnett Talbert was without a doubt a leader of her time; her awards and accomplishments too numerous to mention. She was a woman who stood by the courage of her convictions, bridging the generation of 19th century abolitionists with the developing civil rights and women’s rights advocates of the 20th century. When speaking before the International Council of Women Talbert said “the greatness of nations is shown by their strict regard for human rights, rigid enforcement of the law without bias, and just administration of the affairs of life.”