Presentation to commemorate the protest rally of the Phyllis Wheatley Club November 11, 1900, by Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, Ph.D.

by Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, Ph.D.

This presentation was made by Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, Ph.D. on November 12, 2001 at the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church (Light of the World Mission).  The church service celebrated the 101st anniversary of the Phyllis Wheately Club Protest of the treatment of African Americans during the Pan American Exposition of 1901.  It also concluded Uncrowned Queens' first mini-conference weekend, Lifting as They Climbed:  A Century of Community Building 1901-2001.

Headline:  Pan-American Exposition Color Line  

Buffalo, NY.  Thus far not a single representative of the race has been properly placed by the management of the Pan-American exposition, either as director, superintendent of a department, honorary vice-president or even clerk in any of the departments.  Our people here are indignant at this discrimination and held a meeting Nov. 11th in one of our churches under the auspices of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, composed exclusively of women" Cleveland Gazette, December 1, 1900.

The meeting that sparked this headline was held on November 11, 1900.  Today, one hundred and one years later, we have come to this historic sanctuary to remember, to commemorate and to honor the women of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, whose courageous stand against discrimination and exclusion of African Americans from the Pan American Exposition resulted in a remarkable display of African American achievements and contributions being added to the Exposition venue, to off-set the negative images of the Darkest Africa and the Old Plantation Exhibits.  However, to understand the significance of this group's actions and the importance of their advocacy, we need to have an understanding of both the venue they chose for this protest rally and the climate of the times.

By November 11, 1900, the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church had observed more than 60 years of existence.  Founded in 1836, the church's long history serves as a testimony to the vital role that the black church has played in the lives of its congregation and of its community.  The Michigan Avenue Baptist Church was a change agent:  a refuge for those escaping the evils of slavery, a fertile ground for political and social activism, a source of community charity and educational enlightenment, a nurturer of individual and collective community advocates; in sum the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church was a crucible for community building.

The date was November 11, 1900.  The United States was on the cusp of a new era.  The nation had stepped into a brand new century, still riding high on the euphoria of its victory in the Spanish American War.  The US had assumed it mantel as an international world power, and the country was experiencing the benefits of monumental advances in technology, science, manufacturing and industry.  Furthermore, American culture reveled in the recognition, by other world cultures, of its literary and artistic accomplishments.

And Buffalo, New York, with over 352,000 residents, the 8th largest city in the nation, the first to use electricity to light its streets, the largest railway hub in the country, basked in the glow of this national exhilaration and anticipation of prosperity associated with this new age.  If there was ever a time for America to "strut her stuff" before the world, this was the time, and Buffalo, New York was the place!  Promoters of the Pan American Exposition envisioned the fair as the perfect vehicle to showcase "the marvelous development of the Western a display of the arts, industries, manufactures, and the products of the sail, mines and sea". (The Pan American Magazine, 1899)

November 11, 1900, barely thirty-five years had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves.  Buffalo's small African American community, numbered fewer than 1500 residents.  Yet, the community was well established with roots firmly embedded in the city's history. As a group, Blacks still felt the pain and disparities of the slave system and continuously strategized to alleviate the effects of prejudice and discrimination. However, like their white neighbors, many shared the optimism and excitement of the time and supported the city's bid to host the Pan American Exposition.

In spite of Blacks positive response to the fair however, Exposition officials were not receptive to their participation. The Phyllis Wheatley Club was determined that their community would not be excluded from any of the spoils of this world-class event.  They called the protest meeting to get the attention of the Exposition officials and to rally support for their cause. Their charge of discrimination and demand for inclusion in the planning and implementation of the Pan Am was no isolated incident or disparate act of a do-gooder organization, however. 

These women knew about the economic and socio-political importance of world expositions. They understood the potential of the Exposition for their community: the fair offered a platform that Blacks could use to gain visibility and to inform and educate white Americans about the strides made by members of their race; in addition it was also an opportunity for black Americans to share in the economic benefits derived by the exposition.

Just seven years before the Phyllis Wheatley Club's protest, blacks led by Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass and others created an uproar at the Chicago World's Columbian Fair by their vociferous challenges of policies of exclusion and their advocacy for African American participation in the decision making bodies and other aspects of that fair.  In fact, Ida B. Wells was responsible for a pamphlet that posed both the question and the answers to  "The Reason Why the Colored American is not in the World's Columbian Exposition."  Simply put, racism and discrimination were at the heart of the problem.

For their part, the members of the Phyllis Wheatley Club proposed to give the reasons "Why the Afro-American Should be Represented in the Pan American Exposition."  Mrs. Mary B. Talbert, the corresponding secretary of the group, is reported to have forcefully argued the case for Afro-American representation in her remarks to the assembled body.  Copies of her paper have been lost, but she may have said something like the following:

"To Pastor Nash, honorable clergy, officers, trustees, members and special friends, Mrs. A.D. Wilson of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and Mr. James A. Ross, Esq.  I bring you greetings from the Phyllis Wheatley Club, an affiliate of that great organization, the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Inc., and extend our gratitude for your attendance here in support of a just cause.

The Commissioners of the Pan American Exposition have turned a deaf ear to the pleas of the Afro American of Buffalo and New York State.  They have refused to listen to our petitions for a representative on their Commission.  They have refused to consider our citizens for employment in the bounty of jobs that will result from the commerce of the fair.   Moreover, the Commission has failed to secure an exhibit that illustrates how the Negro has improved his condition since his emancipation from the shackles of slavery.  Such an exhibit is garnering much acclaim at the Exposition being held in Paris, France at this very time. Our own Professor W.E.B. DuBois, curator of the Negro Exhibit in Paris, has received numerous awards for the displays of our achievements and contributions in the fields of education, art, literature, medicine, science, business, agriculture and more.  The Pan American Exposition is the only Fair not to have made early provisions to obtain this truly extraordinary exhibit.

Tonight, we, the women of the Phyllis Wheatley Club of Colored Women, and supportive members of the colored and white community of Buffalo call on the Commissioners of the Pan American Exposition to listen to the reasons why the Negro should be represented at the Pan American Exposition.

Fewer than forty years ago, the Negro was imprisoned body and mind by the chains of an inhumane system.  Yet, in less than four decades of freedom, the Negro has made tremendous strides in all areas of endeavor. The Afro American is a vital, contributing member of this city and this state, and thus should not be ignored, as Buffalo prepares to welcome millions of visitors to its portals.  We implore the Pan American officials not to disregard the Negro when hiring for the building and vending at the fair.  The Negro is a good worker who will more than earn his wages, and the fair organizers will be pleased with the quality of his work.

Our people will be among the millions who will visit the fair, and bring their dollars to add to those of other fair goers.  They will be encouraged to see members of the race employed by the fair and in positions of authority.  And they will take pride in the Negro Exhibit. As a result, the word will go out that others can visit the Pan American Exposition as the Afro American is well represented and welcome there.

Therefore, the Phyllis Wheatley Club calls on all good citizens of this city and this state to support the resolution that follows:  Be it resolved that the Phyllis Wheatley Club of Colored Women of the City of Buffalo New York will take 'immediate steps to inform the Exposition Officials of the desire of the colored people for a Negro exhibit.  And be it further resolved that 'the Negroes of Buffalo are unanimous in demanding that a colored commissioner be appointed' to represent the interests of the race." (Commercial, 11/12/1900)

Mary B. Talbert wasn't the only one who spoke in favor of Negro representation that night.  Mrs. A.D.  Wilson of the WCTU supported the cause, as did James A. Ross, Esq. Mr. Ross, described in the Gazette article as "a well-known Afro American politician" also addressed the group.  He spoke of the apparent prejudice against colored people and declared the exposition officials had made a mistake in not appointing a colored commissioner to represent the race.  Mary Talbert's name was proposed as a most qualified individual to fill this position.

Now that we have the context for the protest, what of the Phyllis Wheatley Club itself and the members who had the audacity to take on a multi-million dollar venture; a venture that was supported by an Act of the U.S. Congress; a venture that was funded by some of the most influential and wealthy white men of the city of Buffalo, State of New York and the nation; a venture that was wrapped up in the US flag.  Who were these women who called out the Board of Managers of the Pan Am Exposition and demanded that they have a say in the planning of the Expo and that blacks have an exhibit that represented their accomplishments?  

On November 11, 1900, The Phyllis Wheatley club was a young organization, organized just a year before the rally.  The club was an affiliate of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, also a fledging organization that had dedicated itself, and its member organizations, to reaching back to help those less fortunate and less able in accordance with their motto, "Lifting as we climb". 

We don't know all the names of the members of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, who attended and planned this meeting, but we do know some of their names, and we know they had a lifetime commitment to the ideals and mission of the organization.  Newspaper accounts of the rally name Mrs. John Dover, the vice-president and Mrs. Mary B. Talbert, the corresponding secretary as instrumental at the meeting.  In addition, we also know that Mrs. Susan C. Evans was the first President of the group, Mrs. C.H. Banks was the recording secretary and Mrs. F. was the treasurer.  By the time of the rally, club members had accomplished much during their short existence.  They donated books by black authors to libraries, fed the hungry, set up educational enrichment programs for the young as well as the mature, taught parenting and they were in the process of organizing an Old Folks Home.

And what of the Phyllis Wheatley Club's protest?  Were they successful in achieving their demands?  We know that the Negro Exhibit was brought from Paris and installed in the Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building at the Pan Am.  We know that Mr. Ross was instrumental as manger of the Negro Exhibit.  We know that James Parker, the black man who prevented President McKinley's assassin from firing a third time at the President was employed as a waiter at the fair, an example that black people did find jobs there. 

We know that a black man, Albert Thomas, a lawyer, was appointed as a clerk in the Exposition's Bureau of Information to "look after the interests of the colored visitors to this city."  And that the Bureau also appointed a Committee of Public Comfort "to make themselves active as a sort of lookout committee for colored people who propose to visit the Pan American Exposition and to provide comfort to the same." (The Forgotten Negro Exhibit, p. 9)  Members of that committee included Mrs. Mary B. Talbert and Mr. James A. Ross. 

We also know that members of the African American community created their own activities associated with the Exposition.  One group, the Progressive Club organized a big welcome party for blacks visiting the city and the Expo.  And the NACW and the Colored Masons held their national conventions in Buffalo during the Exposition. 

Was the Phyllis Wheatley Club successful?  What do you think?

And so today, as we come here, the site of the Phyllis Wheatley Club's historic rally, we are filled with thanksgiving and appreciation for these clubwomen.  For in 1900, long before the feminist movement, these women knew the strength that could result from the collective power of women united in singleness of purpose; long before the principle of diversity demonstrated the effectiveness of drawing on our commonalities rather than our differences, these women brought together women of different ethnic backgrounds to support their cause and to benefit, in turn, from their successes; long before the pursuit of gender equity, these women joined with their men to advocate for economic, political and social equality for all. 

On this, the 101st anniversary of the Phyllis Wheatley Club's Protest, we remember these women, known and unknown. We honor their memory and publicly acknowledge the debt of gratitude we owe them.  For it is on their foundation that we stand; and it is upon their foundation that we build.  The Phyllis Wheatley Club's record and legacy is that they translated, into reality, the essence and meaning of their motto, "Lifting as we climb".  Let's not wait another 101 years before commemorating the legacies of these and other Uncrowned Queens.

Copyright © November 11, 2001.  No portion or entirety of the essay may be printed without permission of the author.