And Still I Rise: Black Women and Reform, Buffalo, New York, 1900-1940

Article excerpt

And Still I Rise: Black Women and Reform, Buffalo, New York, 1900-1940

No Negro woman can afford to be an indifferent spectator of the social, moral, religious, economic, and uplift problems that are agitated around [her].(1)

Mary Burnett Talbert

Mary Burnett Talbert, Oberlin College graduate and Buffalo social activist, in her vice presidential address to the biennial convention of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1916 in Baltimore, told assembled delegates that they should "take an active personal interest in everything that concerns the welfare of home, church, community, state,...[and] country, for once [they] have struck out in this great work [they] are doing the work of God."2 Black women engaged in a persistent struggle for change. Yet these reformers embodied a protest tradition that had manifested itself in the secular and religious organizations of Buffalo's black community during the nineteenth century.(3)The private sphere for these women was inextricably intertwined with the public sphere. Indeed, they felt that their activism was "ordained" by God. They thus held offices in their churches, as well as in political and social clubs. They sometimes operated in gender exclusive organizations and at other times in mixed groups. These reformers were womanists.(4) They embraced an ideology somewhat like that articulated by contemporary black feminists, such as Barbara Smith, who contend that black women confront daily a "simultaneity of oppressions."(5) Yet most of these women's reform activities addressed the subordinate status to which blacks, especially women and children, had been consigned and so they worked with black men to redress their grievances as blacks and women. These women saw themselves as critical links in a social movement designed to liberate the black community from second class citizenship. Their participation in community liberation struggles was a means of empowerment for them as individuals.(6)

This study will examine the extent to which Buffalo black women were involved in the process of social, political, and economic change and the extent to which they were successful. It also will explore the social and economic characteristics of these reformers and their relationship to black men. In the process it will explore the nature of black women's culture and will suggest that such an analysis is a viable way to address the historical experiences of all women. Such a study can best be conducted in the local setting, for it is in this context that we will best be able to examine the individual players and their relationship to larger social movements. Moreover, there is still a need for selected case studies of women's clubs that address their impact.(7) Such an analysis is a critical first step in writing the history of black women and reform in the United States. We turn now to an examination of the Buffalo black community.

On the eve of the twentieth century, Buffalo blacks had well established ties to the city, for they had resided there long before its incorporation in 1832. The African American population, however, remained small through the first decade of the twentieth century when it hovered around 1000.(8) Despite its small size, the community was a driving force in the nineteenth century movements to abolish slavery, to improve public education and to eradicate Jim Crow in the city.

Buffalo had been an important center of reform during the 19th century. The Free Soil Party held its convention there and the religious revival movement was important. In addition the National Negro Convention movement met at the Vine Street AME Church in 1843 and the Niagara Movement, the forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP),was organized at the home of William and Mary Talbert in 1905.(9)

When the twentieth century arrived, Buffalo the great commercial center, the result of the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, had long since given way to the new industrial city. …