Mary Morris Burnett Talbert (1866-1923) was an African American educator, feminist, civil rights activist, and lecturer.
Born on September 18, 1866, to Cornelius and Caroline (Nicholls) Burnett of Oberlin, Ohio, Mary Morris Burnett spent her childhood in the city of her birth. At the age of 16 she was graduated from high school and, with the aid of a benefactor, enrolled in Oberlin College where she pursued a degree in the literary program. Mary Burnett was popular among her fellow students, who elected her treasurer of Aeolian, one of the school's two literary clubs for young women. When Burnett, the only African American in her graduating class, was one of six student representatives at her class day exercises, she read a poem which she had written for the occasion. After receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1886, some of her biographers contend that she later enrolled in courses at the University of Buffalo where she received a doctorate degree. The university cannot confirm the awarding of the degree. (The University of Buffalo did not begin to confer doctoral degrees in arts and letters on a regular basis until 1935. She may have attended a continuing education program in which students were awarded certificates called doctorates.)
In 1886 she began her career as an educator when she accepted a teaching position at Bethel University in Little Rock, Arkansas, where she taught algebra, geometry, Latin, and history. Educators across the nation spoke highly of her accomplishments, and in January 1887 she was elected assistant principal of the Little Rock High School, the highest position held by any woman in the state and the only African American woman to accede to such a position (at the time).
On September 8, 1891, Mary Burnett married William H. Talbert, a Buffalo municipal government bookkeeper and realtor, and moved to that city. In 1892 she gave birth to a daughter, Sarah May, who later enrolled in the New England Conservatory of Music and became an accomplished pianist and composer.
An Active Life in Buffalo
In Buffalo Mary Talbert took up the pursuits of other privileged, educated, middle class women of her day. She affiliated with her husband's congregation, the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church. It was there that in 1901 she organized the Christian Culture Congress, a literary society and forum to address social issues pertaining to African Americans. Talbert served as its president until her death some 20 years later. Often nationally prominent African American spokespersons such as Nannie Helen Burroughs were invited to address the forum.
Talbert also was an active feminist and civil rights advocate. She was a member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, founded in 1899 and the oldest organization of African American women in Buffalo that was affiliated with the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), and later served as its president. In a letter expressing the club's desire to affiliate with the national organization of African American women, Mary Talbert noted, "The organization was founded solely for the betterment of our race and the uplifting of our fallen women in Buffalo." She described the Phyllis Wheatley chapter as a working club which sought reforms and the promotion of the rights of mothers and children.
It was during her administration that the Phyllis Wheatley Club invited the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to consider organizing activities in Buffalo. Once the NAACP was established in 1910, Burnett Talbert was elected to the board of directors and frequently lobbied the local news media to provide fairer coverage of African Americans.
Mary Talbert invited teenage girls to meet in her home on Friday afternoons to discuss contemporary African American political ideology; to hold sessions on dress, manners, and morals; and to use her home for social activities.
Self-help organizations had been an important vehicle in the lives of African Americans, but this was especially true during the post-Reconstruction period when African Americans found their status deteriorating. Mary Burnett Talbert was involved in many such organizations, including the Naomi Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star in Buffalo, and was this benevolent organization's first Worthy Matron or chief administrative officer.
Reaching Out to All Women
The litany of activities enumerated above would have been enough to challenge the ability and tenacity of any individual. But Talbert's contributions did not end in Buffalo, New York. Her abhorrence of racism and sexism carried her into the national and international arenas. One of the most pressing issues that demanded Mary Burnett Talbert's time was concern over the plight of women. On the eve of World War I, Talbert noted that a woman's sphere is not limited and "she has a right to enter any sphere where she can do the most good." She believed that African American women possessed a unique quality and that it was incumbent upon them to help African American men "free themselves from the yoke of moral and political [bondage]."
Talbert's feminism took on global dimensions. She worked with the International Council of Women of the Darker Races, for she adhered to a philosophy predicated upon working with "the forward thinking women of China, Japan, Constantinople [Turkey], and Africa" to solve the problems of women of color. But much of her energy in the movement to grant women equality was devoted to the National Association of Colored Women, founded in 1896. Talbert was NACW president from 1916 to 1920.
As president she toured the nation twice, inspecting council camps, reformatories, and penitentiaries. Because of the inequities in the penal system in the South, Talbert actively sought prison reform. She especially deplored the lax administration of prisons in which African Americans were confined, the incarceration of young children in maximum security prisons with hardcore criminals, and the harsh sentences which they received for minor infractions of the law. With the aid of NACW club women, Talbert brought about sweeping penal reforms in the South.
Talbert believed that the National Association of Colored Women should collaborate with white women's groups to address their mutual grievances. She was a member of the American Association of University Women. As president of the NACW she was the first African American elected delegate to the International Council of Women in 1920. On September 16, 1920, Mary B. Talbert addressed the 660 delegates, representing 33 countries, on the discrimination which African American women experienced in the United States. Fluent in several languages, Talbert travelled to Italy, Denmark, England, and the Netherlands, where she lectured on the conditions of African American men and women in the United States and solicited international support for their cause. European newspapers gave widespread coverage to her lectures.
One of Mary Talbert's most notable achievements as president of the NACW was spearheading a project designed to purchase and restore the Anacostia, District of Columbia, home of the venerable Frederick Douglass as a national shrine to honor Douglass and the achievements of African Americans. This drive was successful. She viewed the efforts of supporters as an example of "[race] loyalty and race consciousness." Upon her death on October 15, 1923, the NACW established the $10, 000 Mary B. Talbert Memorial Fund to honor one of "its most noble who left ineffaceable footprints upon the sands of time…." Monies collected would be used to maintain the Douglass home.
A Ceaseless Quest for Reform
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also provided a forum for Talbert to implement some of her reform efforts. She was member of the board of directors, served as a vice president, and was national director of the NAACP's Anti-Lynching Crusade. This movement spearheaded a campaign to pass the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill which had been introduced into Congress by Leonidas Dyer in 1921. The crusade also hoped to elicit international support in its efforts to raise one million dollars to fight the lynching of African American men and women in the United States, as well as other crimes perpetrated against them. Talbert alone raised over $12, 000 during a nationwide lecture tour. Congress, however, failed to ratify the anti-lynching bill, and in response Talbert urged club women to withhold their support from candidates who voted against it. In 1922 the NAACP awarded Mary Burnett Talbert the coveted Spingarn Medal for her efforts in uplifting her race; she was the first woman to be honored in this manner.
The death of Booker T. Washington in 1915 provided a catalyst for African Americans and whites across the political spectrum to discuss solutions to the race problems and to resolve their differences. Under the auspices of the NAACP Joel Spingarn invited 50 African American and white leaders to meet at his New York estate in August 1916; Mary Talbert accepted his invitation. Conferees unanimously agreed upon such principles as the need to encourage education, to achieve complete political freedom for African Americans, and to open communication lines between the races. This consensus describes the work to which Talbert had devoted her life.
The U.S. entry into World War I and the use of African American men in combat provided another vehicle for Mary B. Talbert to aid her race and her country. During the war she served abroad for four months as YMCA secretary and Red Cross nurse. She lectured to African American soldiers, boosted their morale, and taught classes on religion during her tour of duty in Romagne, France, in 1919.
On the home front, Talbert travelled under the auspices of the United States government lecturing on food conservation to African American women's organizations and led the Liberty Bond Campaign among African American women's clubs. On September 28, 1921, Talbert joined other prominent African American leaders who petitioned President Warren G. Harding to grant clemency to the 24th Infantry of African American soldiers convicted of inciting the Houston, Texas, riots in 1917. Talbert noted that African Americans must continue their protests until they are recognized as American citizens and accorded full and equal rights.
Mary Talbert wrote extensively about the history and conditions of African Americans. In 1901 she published an article in a collection of essays on 20th-century African Americans in which she first turned to "our first and greatest historian—George Washington Williams" before enumerating the advances African Americans had made since slavery. She contended that education was one of their most significant accomplishments during the first generation of freedom. Talbert described this period as a new era of "self-culture and general improvement." She perceived the love of knowledge among African Americans to be "intuitive" and noted that no people ever learned more in so short a time. Historians today provide demographic evidence to substantiate her contentions. Talbert also published "The Achievements of Negro Women During the Past 50 Years" (1915) and the "Life of Harriet Tubman" (n.d.).
Further Reading on Mary Morris Burnett Talbert
Mary B. Talbert is deserving of a major biography. Biographical sketches of Talbert appear in the following: Hallie Q. Brown, Homespun Heroines and Other Women of Distinction; Wilhelmina S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1968); Sylvia G. L. Dannett, Profiles of Negro Womanhood; and Rayford Logan and Michael Winston, The Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Articles about her were published in The Oberlin Alumni Magazine (April 1917), The Buffalo Express (July 15, 1923), The Buffalo Enquirer (October 16, 1923), The National Notes (May 1926), and The Crisis (February and December 1923).