Mary Burnett Talbert


Mary Talbert is the first Black woman to win the prestigious NAACP Spingarn Award.

An educator and pioneer of the early organized civil rights movement, Mary Talbert advocated across the United States and internationally for improved conditions for African Americans and for suffrage for African- American women. During World War I, she sold Liberty Bonds and served in France as a Red Cross nurse.

Born in Oberlin, Ohio, Talbert got a degree at age 19 from Oberlin College, becoming one of the first African-American women nationwide to receive a college degree. She taught high school in Little Rock, Arkansas, and was quickly promoted, in 1887, to assistant principal of a segregated high school.

Mary Talbert was a founding member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club chapter in Buffalo. Club members advocated for greater job opportunities and suffrage, and even lobbied the Buffalo police to provide more protection for black neighborhoods. The club’s motto was “Lifting As We Climb.”

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“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.”
- Mary Burnett Talbert

In 1891, Talbert and her husband moved to Buffalo, where she was a force for social justice. Talbert, a frequent writer and lecturer, was instrumental in founding the Niagara Movement in Buffalo, the precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She also was a founding member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club in Buffalo, an affiliate of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW).

During World War I, Talbert served as a Red Cross nurse in France. She also taught religion to African-American troops and sold thousands of dollars in Liberty Bonds. She later was appointed to the Women’s Committee on International Relations, serving as the first African- American delegate at the 1920 International Council of Women, held in Norway. In Europe, she lectured on race relations and international women’s rights.

As President of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Talbert led a campaign to honor the legacy of abolitionist Frederick Douglass by buying and preserving Cedar Hill, the Washington, D.C., home where he lived the last chapter of his life working in a series of high-level federal government appointments.

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