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Mary B. Talbert on the Achievements of African Americans in the 19th Century - 1902

From Jone Johnson Lewis,
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Essay by Mary B. Talbert, 1902

This essay is reprinted from Twentieth Century Negro Literature, edited by D. W. Culp (Dr. Daniel Wallace Culp), published 1902.  The biographical sketch of Mary B. Talbert is presumably written by Culp.  Related articles on this site include:


Did the Negro Make, in the Nineteenth Century, Achievements Along the Lines of Wealth, Morality, Education, Etc., Commensurate with His Opportunities? If So, What Achievements Did He Make?

BY Mary B. Talbert.

Mary Burnett Talbert was born at Oberlin, Ohio, in 1866, her father's family having gone there from Chapel Hill, N. C. She is descended on her maternal side from Richard Nichols, who compelled Peter Stuyvesant to surrender New Amsterdam and who for a short while was Governor of the State of New York.

She graduated at the early age of sixteen from the Oberlin High School, and through the generosity of Ex-President James H. Fairchild was enabled to attend Oberlin College.

When applying for admission to the class in trigonometry, the instructor doubtfully admitted her, as so many of the High School pupils had found the subject very hard and preferred a review of other mathematics. She entered the class, however, on trial, and made a term's record of 5 per cent, with an examination of 5.5 per cent, 6 per cent being the highest mark for lessons in college.

During the next term she entered the class of mechanics, and made a perfect record for term's work and examination.

While attending school she was well liked by her classmates, being made Treasurer of Aeolian, one of the two college societies for young women, and was also one of six representatives chosen for Class Day Exercises. She was given the place of honor upon the programme, and recited an original poem, "The Lament of the Old College Bell, Once First, Now Second."

Mrs. Talbert graduated from Oberlin at the early age of nineteen, being the only colored member of her class after the withdrawal of the late Lieutenant John Alexander.

She started out in life equipped not only with a great love of learning but with all the encouragement which made it possible for her to follow the inclinations of her mind.

In 1886 she accepted a position in Bethel University, Little Rock, Ark.

Some women make themselves teachers, but Mrs. Talbert was a born teacher. The late Professor John M. Ellis, in writing of her, said: "She is a lady of Christian character and pleasing address. As a student she has an excellent record and standing in her class, showing good abilities and industry and fidelity in her work. She has the qualities natural and acquired to make a superior teacher."

In January, 1887, she was elected Assistant Principal of the Little Rock High School, the highest position held by any woman in the State of Arkansas, and the only colored woman who has ever held the position. Mrs. Talbert resigned her place after her marriage to Mr. William H. Talbert, one of Buffalo's leading colored young men, and was urged after marriage to reconsider her resignation and take up her work again.

Leading educators and literary men, such as Charles Dudley Warner, Samuel A. Greene of Boston, L. S. Holden of St. Louis, and others who visited her classes, and, having seen them at work, registered their names with written comments.

Professor Albert A. Wright of Oberlin writes as follows: "Mary Burnett received her education in the public schools and college of this place, where her parents have resided for many years. She has won the respect and approval of her teachers by her successful accomplishments of the tasks set before her." Mrs. Talbert received the degree granted to students of the Literary Course in 1894, and is a member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, being the only colored woman in the city of Buffalo eligible.


As the hand upon the dial of the nineteenth, century clock pointed to its last figure, it showed that the American Negro had ceased to be a thing, a commodity that could be bought and sold, a mere animal; but was indeed a human being possessing all the qualities of mind and heart that belong to the rest of mankind, capable of receiving education and imparting it to his fellow man, able to think, act, feel, and develop those intellectual and moral qualities, such as characterize mankind generally.

Let us glance at the intellectual Negro and see if he has made any progress commensurate with his opportunities during the nineteenth century.

Intuitively we turn to that great historian of our race—who for seven years worked with such care and zeal to write a thoroughly trustworthy history of the American Negro, and to-day stands as our first and greatest historian—George W. Williams. In prefacing his second volume, he says: "I have tracked my bleeding countrymen through widely scattered documents of American history; I have listened to their groans, their clanking chains, and melting prayers, until the woes of a race and the agonies of centuries seem to crowd upon my soul as a bitter reality. Many pages of this history have been blistered with my tears; and although having lived but a little more than a generation my mind feels as if it were cycles old.

"A short time ago the schools of the entire North were shut in his face; and the few separate schools accorded him were given grudgingly. They were usually held in the lecture room of some colored church or thrust off to one side in a portion of the city or town toward which aristocratic ambition would never turn. These schools were generally poorly equipped; and the teachers were either colored persons whose opportunities of securing an education had been poor, or white persons whose mental qualifications would not encourage them to make an honest living among their own race."

It will not be necessary to enumerate the various insults and discouragements which faced the noble pioneers of our race who, seeing their fellow men denied the opportunities and privileges of securing an education, scorned by the press and pulpit, in public and private gatherings for their ignorance, set about to lift the Negro from his low social and mental condition.

The Negro turned his attention to the education of himself and his children; schools were commenced, churches organized, and a new era of self-culture and general improvement began.

In Boston we see Thomas Paul, Leonard A. Grimes, John T. Raymond, Robert Morris and John V. DeGrasse.

In 1854 John V. DeGrasse was admitted to the Massachusetts Medical Society, being the first instance of such an honor being conferred upon a colored man in this country.

In New York we find Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, Dr. Charles B. Ray, Charles L. Reason and Jacob Day doing what they could to elevate the Negro and place him on a higher intellectual plane.

Philadelphia also added her quota to the list of noble men who were striving to show to the world that the American Negro, although enslaved, was a human being. We find such men as Robert Purvis, William Still and Stephen Smith.

In Western Pennsylvania and New York were John Peck, John B. Vashon and Peyton Harris and all through the North, each state held colored men who were anxious to do what they could to elevate the race, and it seems as if God gave each one a special duty to perform, which combined, made one mighty stimulus to the young colored youth to do what he could to build up the Negro race.

Do you ask if the Negro has advanced intellectually, I need only to refer you to the showing made by the men and women of our race to-day. The works of Frederick Douglass, John M. Langston, Blanche K. Bruce, J. C. Price, are living testimonials of what the Negro accomplished a generation ago.

When we consider the fact that the Negro was of such import that laws were made making it a misdemeanor to educate the Negro, both before and after the Civil War; when we consider the Greek text books of Professor Scarborough of Wilberforce used by one of the oldest Colleges in America; when we consider the Presidents and Principals of various Negro schools in our country, such as Livingston, N. C.; Spellman Seminary, Atlanta, Ga.; Wilberforce, Ohio; Virginia Normal and Collegiate; Shaw University; when we consider the place that our honored clergy occupy among the intellectual men of the world; when we consider the work of Booker T. Washington, we must admit that the love of knowledge seems to be intuitive. No people ever learned more in so short a time.

Every year since the Civil War the American Negro has been taking on better and purer traits of character.

The Negro of to-day is materially different from the Negro of yesterday. He delights in the education of his children, and from every section of our Southland come letters asking for competent colored teachers and educated ministers. The young man and woman who educate themselves in our Northern colleges and normal schools do not always have to turn their attention to the far South to seek fields of labor, but in an honest competition, gain places of honor and trust in the North.

Think of the scores of young colored women all over our Northern states teaching the "young idea how to shoot," and not a black face in the class. We find colored women with large classes of white pupils in St. Paul, Minn.; Chicago, Ill.; Detroit, Mich.; Cleveland, Ohio; Buffalo, N. Y.; and other Northern cities. "From the state of semi-civilization," says Williams, "in which he cared only for the comforts of the present, his desires and wants have swept outward and upward into the years to come and toward the Mysterious Future."

Several hundred weekly newspapers, a dozen monthly magazines, conducted by Negroes, are feeding the mind of the race, binding communities together by the cords of common interest and racial sympathy. The conditions around which the Negro was surrounded years ago have disappeared and the Negro is as proud of his own society as the whites are of theirs. Sociological study and laws have given to our present generation the will power and tenacity to establish and maintain a social standing equal with any of the races of the world. Without a question of doubt he has shown moral qualities far in advance of those which dominated in slave history and under which he was constantly subjected.

Has the Negro made any achievements along the lines of wealth? needs only a review of statistics to answer the above question, for where once was the rude cabin, and one-room hut, we now see the beautiful homes with well kept stock and farm, hygienic stables as well as artistic lawns. The first experiment the general masses of negroes had in the saving of money was under that institution known as "The Freedman's Saving and Trust Company." The institution started out under the most favorable auspices. The depositors numbered among its rank and file, day laborers, farmers, mechanics, house-servants, barbers and washerwomen; thus showing to the entire country that the emancipated Negro was not only working but by industry and economy was saving his earnings. We know too well of the misplaced confidence in that bank and how after a short time the bank failed and thousands of colored men and women lost their earnings. During the brief period of its existence $57,000,000 were deposited. Although the Freedman's Bank caused many a colored person to shrink from any banking institution, yet some were hopeful and again began to save money. Throughout the entire South we find scores of colored men who have excellent farms, elegant homes and small fortunes.

"In Baltimore a company of colored men own a ship-dock and transact a large business. Some of the largest orange plantations in Florida are owned by colored men. On most of the plantations, and in many of the large towns and cities colored mechanics are quite numerous."

The total amount of property owned by the colored people in all the states is rated at over $400,000,000.

In the North, East and West we see many colored men with handsome estates run high into the hundred thousands. Almost every large city and town will show among her population a Negro here and there whose wealth is rated between five and ten thousand dollars or more.

Rev. A. G. Davis of Raleigh, N. C., in an address at the North Carolina Agricultural Fair, said, "Scan, if you will, the long line of eight million Negroes as they march slowly but surely up the road of progress, and you will find in her ranks such men as Granville T. Woods, of Ohio, the electrician, mechanical engineer, manufacturer of telephones, telegraph and electrical instruments; William Still, of Philadelphia, the coal dealer; Henry Tanner, the artist; John W. Terry, foreman of the iron and fitting department of the Chicago West Division Street Car Company; J. D. Baltimore, engineer, machinist, and inventor, of Washington, D. C.; Wiley Jones, of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the owner of a street car railroad, race track and park; Richard Hancock, foreman of the pattern shops of the Eagle Works and Manufacturing Company, and draughtsman; John Beack, the inventor, whose inventions are worth tens of thousands of dollars; W. C. Atwood, the lumber merchant and capitalist."

And now in review let me add that the social conditions of the American Negro are such that he has shown to the world his aptitude for study and general improvement.

Before character, education and wealth, all barriers will melt, and these are necessary to develop the growth of the race.

From abject serfdom and pauperism he has risen to a plane far above the masses of any race of people.

By his industry and frugality he has made himself master of any situation into which he has been placed, and none will deny that his achievements along all lines have been commensurate with his opportunities.


This essay is reprinted from Twentieth Century Negro Literature, edited by D. W. Culp (Dr. Daniel Wallace Culp), published 1902.  The biographical sketch of Mary B. Talbert is presumably written by Culp.  Related articles on this site include:

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