Niagara Movement Turns 100

The Niagara Movement — a civil rights organization that first convened near Buffalo and the Niagara Falls in upstate New York — turns 100 years old this year. The pioneering civil rights organization eventually transformed into the NAACP. Eileen Buckley of member station WBFO in Buffalo, N.Y., reports.

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The NAACP recently held its board of directors meeting in Buffalo, New York, an appropriate location since the city is marking the 100th anniversary of the Niagara Movement. The movement led to the creation of the NAACP. From Buffalo's member station WBFO, Eileen Buckley reports.

EILEEN BUCKLEY reporting:

During the 1800s, Buffalo's Michigan Street Baptist Church was the final stop along the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves attempting to reach Canada, scenes that are re-enacted frequently by a Buffalo-based theatrical group called Motherland Connections.

(Soundbite of theatrical production)

Unidentified Man: I hear horses.

Unidentified Woman #1: And I hears 'em comin'.

Unidentified Woman #2: Come on!

Unidentified Woman #1: Keep coming'!

Unidentified Woman #2: Come on, y'all!

BUCKLEY: Buffalo's Michigan Street Baptist Church was also the site of a protest which would lead indirectly to the founding of the Niagara Movement. In 1900, a local well-off African-American woman named Mary Talbert called on officials of the Pan-American Exposition to include a black exhibit. The experience would lead Mary Talbert and her husband, William, to take on other causes. Five years later, the Talberts hosted a meeting in their home to plan a strategy against conservative Booker T. Washington. In attendance were 29 black intellectuals from around the country. The summit was led by scholar W.E.B. Du Bois.

Dr. Lillian Williams is a historian with the University at Buffalo. Williams says Du Bois had been looking for a place to hold a secret gathering of educated activists.

Dr. LILLIAN WILLIAMS (University at Buffalo): Buffalo provided an opportunity for them to come to meet with people like William Talbert. It was close to Canada.

BUCKLEY: Du Bois, the Talberts and others set their sights across the US-Canadian border on nearby Ft. Erie, in the shadow of Niagara Falls. Again, Dr. Lillian Williams.

Dr. WILLIAMS: Housing was not available to hold their meeting. Furthermore, there were no resorts in the area that would accommodate African-Americans, and Ft. Erie provided that.

BUCKLEY: Buffalo, like much of the US at the time, may have not been a safe enough place to map out civil rights strategy, but it proved to be a good jumping-off point to mount a long-term campaign for voting rights and against widespread lynching of blacks. It was at the initial meeting in the home of Mary and William Talbert that Du Bois and the other men drew up a set of principles that formed the basis for the Niagara Movement. And though Mary Talbert was excluded from the gathering of men, this daughter of Buffalo is given credit for helping to advance the country's civil rights agenda. She was elected president of the National Association of Colored Women in 1916 and later served on the NAACP board. Earlier this month, she was inducted into the Women's Hall of Fame.

(Soundbite of traffic in background)

Ms. B. GWENDOLYN GREENE: Buffalo was proud of her because she was a woman who was educated at Oberlin College in Ohio. She traveled quite a bit. She was on the demand, really, as a speaker.

BUCKLEY: B. Gwendolyn Greene of Buffalo says her grandmother and Mary Talbert were close friends at the Michigan Street Church. Chris Mesiah, president of Buffalo's NAACP chapter, stands in a parking lot and proudly points to the area where Talbert's home once stood.

Mr. FRANK MESIAH (President, Buffalo Chapter, NAACP): She received one of the Springarn Medals, which was--it's a national, you know, medal given by the National NAACP.

BUCKLEY: In the neighborhood block that included Talbert's former home, Buffalo is now conducting major infrastructure improvements to create the Michigan Avenue Heritage Corridor. African-Americans and city leaders want it to become a national tourist destination, marking the site of the secret meetings that led to the founding of the Niagara Movement. For NPR News, I'm Eileen Buckley in Buffalo.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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