By Sarah Ruth Offhaus:
In honor of Juneteenth, this story marks the first in a series of articles highlighting Buffalo’s significance to the beginnings of what would later become our nation’s Civil Rights movement. Check back in the coming weeks to read more about this lesser-known chapter in our city’s past!
Buffalo is a city filled with visible reminders of it’s storied past. The many aging structures throughout the city limits are speckled and scarred monuments of a time when Buffalo was The Steel City. The exuberant mansions that line what is still considered “Millionaire’s Row” lay testament to a day when industrial magnates called our city home. But there’s another vital and important part of our history that has left its mark much more indelibly than any physical structure could. Many people (including myself, prior to a few weeks ago) aren’t aware that Buffalo’s African American community was on the forefront of the Civil Rights movement here in our country, and that the women of the Phyllis Wheatley Club had no small part in this.
In the late 19th century, organized clubs became a popular way for women to socialize, educate themselves and plan larger efforts toward bettering the communities they lived in. Black women were no exception, and in 1895, the Phyllis Wheatley Club was founded in Nashville, TN. Named after the first African American poet to have her works published in the U.S, the club’s popularity grew swiftly. Chicago’s branch was formed in 1896. Detroit’s followed in 1897, and Buffalo’s own branch of the Phyllis Wheatley Club was formed in 1899.
The motto of the Phyllis Wheatley Club was “Lifting As We Climb”, and Buffalo’s members (numbering over 200 by 1901), worked hard to live up to that. The Club’s many achievements throughout the span of its existence included the creation of a home for the elderly, serving dinners to the poor and homeless in the community, donating books by black authors to local school libraries, and raising money to help provide a monthly pension for Harriet Tubman, the leader of the Underground Railroad, who lived until 1913.
The Phyllis Wheatley Club was also active in working to reform crime in local neighborhoods, and formed a committee that communicated with Buffalo’s police to make sure that black neighborhoods received the same protection and monitoring as white neighborhoods were given. In an age when women had no right to vote, and black women had little access to educational opportunity, the Phyllis Wheatley Club stood out as an effective way for Buffalo’s black women to make their mark on society and push for the changes they felt their community needed.
Membership in the Buffalo chapter of the Phyllis Wheatley Club was free, and with over 200 women participating at the turn of the century, there is sure to have been a great variety of voices that played a role in the development of this society. We do not know all the names of the women involved, but the actions and words of some of the club’s key players have been recorded. The first president was Susan C Evans, the first vice president was Mrs John H Dover, and the first secretary was Mary Burnett Talbert.
As one of the founding members of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, Mary Talbert had been privy to many opportunities that were rare for women of her time, regardless of race. She received a degree from Oberlin College, held positions as a teacher and a principal, and became an active and important member of the Michigan Street Baptist Church when she moved to Buffalo in 1891. Mary’s presence in her community, along with her own personal passion for women’s advocacy and racial equality, made her an incredible asset to the Phyllis Wheatley Club. Through Mary’s activism, the club soon began to focus their efforts on much larger issues–issues that not only affected the neighborhoods around the Michigan Street community, but also affected the country at large.
In its own right, the Phyllis Wheatley Club stood as a unique testament to community service and women’s empowerment, but on November 12, 1900, the club became more than just a women’s social club. It became one of the first stepping stones in the road towards equal rights for all Americans.
The Pan-American Exposition would soon be setting up shop in Buffalo, filling its hotels, restaurants and stores with revenue and a constant flux of people eager to experience the many exhibits. Having an exposition in one’s city was akin to the frantic preparations a city today undergoes when it prepares to host the Olympics. Hotels were built. Souvenirs were mass-produced. A dream-like city of exhibits would be held in massive, temporary structures that represented all pertinent aspects of modern life. A visitor to the Pan-American Exposition could expect to witness a world in miniature, with showcases for the latest innovations in technology and entertainment. It was here that Mary Talbert and the women of the Phyllis Wheatley Club would encounter one of their greatest challenges….
Check back in the coming weeks to read more about this important chapter in our city’s heritage, and to learn about our city’s role in the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement. Happy Juneteenth, Buffalo!