Author: Peggy Brooks-Bertram, Dr. P.H., Ph.D.
– Written from numerous materials celebrating her life and times.
Mary Lee Crosby Chappelle was a retired public school teacher of Special Education. She retired from teaching in 1975 after 32 years in the classroom. In her illustrious career she was Dean Emeritus, Mary Chappelle Foundation; minister; volunteer; public speaker; journalist, poet, dramatist, singer, and community builder with membership in numerous community, civic, religious and social organizations.
She was born on March 12, 1905 to Mariah Henderson and Tilman Crosby, in Milton, Florida. and is the third oldest of four children, the only daughter and the only surviving member of her family. Her father died when she was very young and her mother, Mariah, died in Buffalo in 1967 at the age of eighty-seven.
In 1919, Mrs. Chappelle and her family left Milton, Florida to live briefly in Dover, Ohio. Shortly thereafter, they settled in the small town of Coshocton, Ohio, a small Appalachian county where she attended school. She was the only African American student and graduated with honors in a class of 200. With the help of a Mrs. Kaufman, whom she remembers fondly, and a scholarship from the United Methodist Church, Ms. Chappelle enrolled in Clark College, a Methodist College in Atlanta, Georgia. While at college, Ms. Chappelle participated in many college activities as. For instance, she was a founding member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and was also the Editor-in-Chief and President of the Clark College newspaper, the Mentor. It was at Clark College that she met W.E.G.B. DuBois and his wife Clara. In 1926, she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Liberal Arts. She later attended Gammon Theological Seminary for four years and received a certificate of recognition. In April 1981, she returned to her Alma Mater, to deliver a 50th Anniversary address and was warmly received.
Her family moved to Buffalo in 1935. In order to get a teaching position in the Buffalo Public Schools, she attended Buffalo State College to take twenty hours of Special Education before she was allowed to teach. Subsequently she taught in many of the schools in the system and taught at School #75 until her retirement in 1975. In 1996, she was extended Lifetime Membership by the Buffalo Retired Teachers Association. Fellow teachers remember her strong interest in African history and the need to include African History in school curricula.
“Federated Women” continue to have a stellar record in Buffalo’s community and Ms. Chappelle was one of them, once belonging to all three clubs in Buffalo at the same time–Phyllis Wheatley Club of Colored Women, Lit-Mus Study Club, and the Mary B. Talbert Civic and Cultural Club of which she was a founding member. She was instrumental, along with Mrs. Carolyn B. Thomas, in establishing the Mary B. Talbert Club. Ms. Chappelle and also a member of the Gamma Phi Omega Chapter, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc and had membership in numerous clubs and associations. Each heaped praises on her over the decades. She also gave generously of her time to numerous other community organizations including the Friends to the Elderly, United Way, Buffalo General Mental Health Program, City of Buffalo Landmarks and Preservation Board, Senior Companion, Community Action Agency and many others. Over the years, most have celebrated her life and contributions to the region. In April 19, 1977, she was an honoree at the Pride of Western New York #1151, IBPO Elks of the World, 35th Anniversary Dinner Dance, Celebrating the Year of Afro-American Women.
Religion and a deep abiding faith have always been characteristic of her work and many churches and religious groups have celebrated her contributions to the life of Buffalo’s Black community. Her church, the Bethel A.M.E. Church gave her the Certificate of Recognition in appreciation of her 50 years of sincere and dedicated service. In 1955, she was appointed to the post of Missionary Worker by the Annual Conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1990 at the St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in the “Celebration of the Sages,” Mary Chappelle, sponsored by Monica Connors, was celebrated as a “Sage.” Several other Uncrowned Queens were also celebrated at the time, e.g., Ruby Butts, Thelma Hardiman, Eva M. Noles, Clara L. Payne, Virginia Price, Carolyn B. Thomas, and Garnet Hicks-Wallace. On this occasion Ms. Chappelle was referred to as a “Legend in Western New York history.” Other churches which have celebrated her over the years include: Metropolitan United Methodist Church; Full Gospel Mission; People’s Community United Church of Christ; Evangelistic Temple; New Covenant United Church of Christ; Church of God in Christ and others. All had wonderful things to say about “Their Mary.”
She was also one who loved education and continued her own education at every opportunity; e.g., she had graduate studies at the Atlanta School of Social Work. In July 1993, she completed a special seminar in Developing a Sense of Good Citizenship and Self-Esteem among Youth and Young Adults. Her work as a community builder was recognized across the region. For example, Jack Quinn, Former Congressman for the area, presented her with a Certificate of Appreciation in celebration of National Women’s History Month citing her contributions in heightening the awareness of the role of the American woman. Former Governor Mario Cuomo awarded her the Certificate of Merit. It reads: “As you are honored by the Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs, Inc. Your commitment and longstanding dedication are shining examples of your generous contribution of your time and efforts to the Family of New York.”
The African American press has always been a vital organ for its community. Ms. Chappelle believed in the power of this press and stayed in tune with her community through her writings. As a journalist, she wrote columns for at least two newspapers in the area. She was Society Editor of the Buffalo Star from 1936-58 and had a column for more than 10 years in the Buffalo Criterion, an African American weekly still viable and serving the Buffalo African American community.
She was not just religious but had a broad interest and deep passion for all religions and was closely associated with several churches in the area. For example, she was a member of the Missionary Society of the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church of Reverend Jesse Nash, Sr., whom she knew and with whom she maintained a long and friendly relationship. She was also associated with myriad Missionary Churches in the area. Ms. Chappelle was a colleague of Professor Monroe Fordham and was also an early member the African American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier, Inc.
More than one quarter century ago, she created the Mary Crosby Chappelle Education and Black History Foundation, and on April 3, 1978 her friends conducted a Testimonial and Foundation Fund Raising Dinner at the Buffalo Convention Center. Hundreds were in attendance to raise funds for the foundation and to celebrate her life. Clifford Bell was Master of Ceremonies. On April 29, 1988 the First Anniversary Program theme of the Foundation was “Upward and Forward.” The Foundation became a fully recognized not-for-profit organization emphasizing history and education.
On another occasion, celebrating her life and accomplishments, another Uncrowned Queen, Earline Collier who is no longer with us, had this to say about Ms. Chappelle:
Anything that happened yesterday is history. Our Mistress of Ceremonies has already lived many pages. As we celebrate the month of February. I shall take a different route and polish an already brilliant diamond to a higher brilliancy. She was an excellent teacher in the classroom and outside the room, she teaches important lessons everyday. We only have to listen and learn. She’s knowledgeable, witty, personable, caring, commanding, distinctive, wise, generous, persistent, persuasive.I could go on but there are not enough superlatives in my vocabulary to keep on with adjectives that would have to be modified by adverbs.so. I present to you an aristocrat, Mary Crosby Chappelle and She’s all That!
On March 12, 2005, Ms. Chappelle passes another historic milestone-her 100th birthday. This year Ms. Chappell’s birthday occurs during a very significant celebration for African Americans in Buffalo, the Niagara Movement Centennial. Ms. Chappelle’s birth was during its inauguration 100 years ago. And later in her life, because of her community activism, she crossed paths with and celebrated the lives of some of the luminaries of the Niagara Movement, e.g., W.E.B.B. Dubois, Reverend Jesse, Nash, Sr.,and many others.
It is indeed an exciting time to be in Buffalo and to celebrate this momentous Centennial within the Centennial – the 100th birthday of Mary Lee Crosby Chappelle. To the woman called by so many names such as; “Sage of the Ages,” “Maryle,” “Our Mary,” “A Great Lady,” “Precious Jewel,” “An Aristocrat,” “Brilliant Diamond” and so many, many more, we salute you!
The Friends of the Buffalo Story is involved in a yearlong project whose mission is to uncover and reveal the heritage-based stories of people who live along the Ferry Street Corridor. As part of this effort “The Friends” is working very closely with community-groups, who have been doing this work for many years. None has done this more effectively and diligently than the uncrowned queens institute for research & education on women, inc.
We are proud to be collaborating with them to bring you this ongoing feature during the month of February, which focuses on some of the “uncrowned community builders” who have done so much to strengthen the African-American community of Buffalo’s East Side.
Additional “uncrowned community builders” are as follows: