Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
SEARCH FOR SOCIAL ACTIVIST'S LETTERS LEADS TO ATTICS

SEARCH FOR SOCIAL ACTIVIST'S LETTERS LEADS TO ATTICS

  • 0
Support this work for $1 a month

Lillian S. Williams thinks letters exchanged between turn-of-the-century social activist Mary Burnett Talbert and European royalty are gathering dust in some Buffalo attic.

Without knowing it, she says, someone may also have a cedar chest full of letters documenting how the organization that developed into the NAACP was formed in Mrs. Talbert's Michigan Avenue home.

Ms. Williams, a professor in the Women's Studies Department at the University at Albany, wants to write the first major biography on Mrs. Talbert and has traveled nationwide over the last 10 years gathering the mementos and facts that tell the story of one of Buffalo's most prominent African-American citizens.

From a local antiques dealer she received land records, freedom papers (documents that showed blacks were not slaves) and other Talbert family documents. However, the same antiques dealer had thrown away hand-written letters.

Ms. Williams hopes to reach others before time or carelessness does away with Mrs. Talbert's story. Mrs. Talbert, whose name was once lent to a city housing project, is widely remembered as a fighter for reform and the first president of the National Association of Colored Women Clubs.

Ms. Williams' research has turned up some little-known facts about the woman who played a central role in the development of the city's and the nation's African-American community.

For example Mrs. Talbert, who spoke several languages and addressed the International Council of Women in 1920, carried on a correspondence with members of the Danish and British royal families for many years, accord-ing to Ms. Williams' research.

"Black Americans found Europeans appeared to be more receptive," Ms. Williams said.

For instance, Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century abolitionist who rose from slavery to become the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, purchased his freedom with money provided by British friends. Ida B. Wells, a journalist who documented lynchings, traveled to Europe to speak about the crimes committed against blacks in America.

Mrs. Talbert also attempted to enlist the influence of European powers, Ms. Williams said. Her obituary noted that she was a personal guest of the royal family of Denmark in the 1920s and that she wrote the king of Belgium imploring him to grant freedom and democracy to his colonies in Africa. She also wrote to British royalty.

To date none of those letters to European royalty have been found, but Ms. Williams said the exchange of letters went on until Mrs. Talbert died in 1923. She plans travel to Europe in the spring to check archives there, but it is possible that responses from the royal families are in this country.

Another historical insight that might be revealed through old minutes of various civic and social organizations is Mrs. Talbert's role in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the NAACP, was founded in Mrs. Talbert's home at 521 Michigan Ave. in 1905 by W.E.B. DuBois and other black intellectuals. Ms. Williams, who has examined DuBois' papers at Amherst College in Massachusetts, said Booker T. Washington wrote Mrs. Tal-bert's husband, William, in hopes of recruiting him as a spy in DuBois' newly formed organization.

Washington, the most prominent African-American leader in the nation at the beginning of the century, loathed DuBois, a writer who attacked Washington's acquiescence to white domination in political and social spheres.

"Based upon research so far there is no indication of how William Talbert acted," Ms. Williams said.

Mrs. Talbert and Margaret Mary Washington, Booker T. Washington's wife, were best friends, raising the question of the role these women played in ensuring DuBois' fledging organization was not sabotaged by Washington, Ms. Williams said.

"The women seemed to act independently of the men," Ms. Williams said. "The men seemed to be solidly in one camp or the other, while the women were able to work together."

Mrs. Talbert sat on the first board of directors for the NAACP and became the national director of the group's Anti-Lynching Crusade. She attempted to recruit sympathetic whites to help bring about legislation that would end atrocities perpetrated on blacks by white mobs.

Mrs. Talbert worked with white women who were pushing social reforms around the turn of the century. Florence Kelly, the first factory inspector in Illinois and an advocate of children's rights, was on the board of the NAACP with Mrs. Talbert.

Therefore, Ms. Williams believes, some of the historical evidence she is looking for is not necessarily in the hands of the black community.

In 1899, Mrs. Talbert founded the Phyllis Wheatley Club, the oldest organization of African-American women in Buffalo -- "for the betterment of our race," she once wrote.

After World War I, Mrs. Talbert served four months abroad as YMCA secretary and a Red Cross nurse. She boosted the morale of black soldiers and held religious classes while on duty in Romagne, France, in 1919.

"I have conducted research all over the country," Ms. Williams said. "Articles on her appeared in newspapers all over the country."

Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Most Popular

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.

Topics

News Alerts

Breaking News