Remembering Mary Talbert

portrait of Mary Talbert.

Collection of the Buffalo History Museum

A quest to chronicle the life of an unsung human rights activist

Mary Burnett Talbert was an extraordinary civil rights advocate in the early 20th century, and yet her name barely registers today. University at Buffalo researcher Lillian S. Williams, an expert on U.S. social and urban history, is working to change that.

A fascinating figure

Born in 1866, Talbert was described by the National Women’s Hall of Fame as a civil rights and anti-lynching activist, suffragist, preservationist, international human rights proponent, and educator.

“I’m fascinated by her,” says Williams, an associate professor in the Department of Transnational Studies. Williams has worked to commemorate Talbert’s legacy through articles, lectures, media interviews and historical recognition projects. In 2005, she helped to successfully nominate Talbert to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

“When I look at her story, it talks about tenacity. It talks about vision. It talks about the efforts—I mean, consistent efforts—to improve life for other people … to make America all that she should be.”

Activism near and far

Williams says it was around the turn of the 20th century that Mary Talbert became a prominent voice in public life. She served as president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC), through which she led efforts to purchase and restore the home of Frederick Douglass, now a National Historic Site, and campaigned for prison reform in the Jim Crow South. She helped build the NAACP, rising to vice president and helping to found multiple chapters, and spoke nationally and internationally on an array of causes, for the rights of women and children, and against white supremacy around the globe. She was the first woman to receive the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal, the organization’s highest honor.   

She was active in an era when Blackness was criminalized, Williams says: “Walking on the wrong side of the street, looking a white person in their eyes. Being wealthy was a crime, because you challenged the status quo that essentially said that African Americans were inferior, incompetent and incapable of anything, especially if it involved the intellect.”

The struggle continues

As Williams continues work on a full-length biography, she says that stories like Talbert’s must be remembered. The work of Talbert’s generation built on the activism of their predecessors and laid the foundation for the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Black Lives Matter is another chapter in that history, Williams says. Then as now, she says, there is “a persistent struggle to dismantle systemic racism and to improve life for all Americans.”