Lifting as We Climb: Origins of the Phyllis Wheatley Club

“The Phyllis [sic] Wheatley Club of Buffalo: ‘Lifting as We Climb’ – By Many Means Necessary” Presentation by Barbara A. Seals Nevergold at the Gender Institute Symposium April 13, 2012 – University at Buffalo © 2012


Let me start with a disclosure: Even though I’m a lifelong Buffalonian and I was raised on the East side of Buffalo at a time when the community was cohesive, e.g. segregated, I don’t ever remember hearing of the Phyllis Wheatley Club until 1999. That year Peggy Bertram and I joined the Women’s Pavilion Pan Am 2001 and started our research for the development of the Uncrowned Queens Project to commemorate the centennial of the Pan American Exposition. I had a conversation with Elizabeth Sholes, who told me of this Black women’s group and of the “protest” rally they’d held at the Michigan Street Baptist Church to advocate for inclusion of Blacks in the Pan American Exposition. [Now at this point, let me ask you to stick a pin right here, and I’ll return to this event shortly] Prior to Emancipation Black women in the north formed mutual aid societies that promoted racial uplift, a sense of duty and obligation to her race, and provided assistance and support to destitute members of their community. In 1895 James Jacks, President of the Missouri Press Association wrote a widely publicized letter that labeled Blacks as “… wholly devoid of morality”; he specifically claimed that Black “…. women were prostitutes and all were natural thieves and liars.” (p. 436, “Black Women in White America” Lerner) Jacks’ letter ignited and energized the Black women’s club movement, which launched a campaign to refute his portrayal of Black women. The same year that Jacks’ published his letter, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, a writer and suffragette, called together a group of Black women who formed the National Federation of Afro-American Women, a direct response to Jacks’ assertions about Black women. Ruffin believed that the best way to respond to racist and sexist attacks was through social-political activism. She argued that developing positive images of African-American womanhood was important to countering racist attacks: "Too long have we been silent under unjust and unholy charges; we cannot expect to have them removed until we disprove them through ourselves." In 1896, the merger of two organizations, the National Federation of Afro-American Women and the National League of Colored Women of Washington, DC, resulted in the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, which incorporated among its objectives , "to furnish evidence of the moral, mental and material progress made by people of color through the efforts of our women" into its national program. While the founders of the NACW understood the power of advocacy, they also promoted self-help and volunteerism. The organization’s motto, “Lifting as we Climb” expressed their dedication to reaching back to and assisting those, who were less fortunate and less able. Within 20 years, the NACW had sister affiliates across this nation with an extraordinary membership of 300,000. The Phyllis Wheatley Club of Colored Women, Buffalo’s first NACW affiliate was founded in 1899. The PWC began a long tradition of establishing and supporting self-help and advocacy programs in this community that spanned nearly 100 years. Mrs. John Dover, Mrs. Susan Evans and Mrs. Mary Burnett Talbert were among its founding members. Each of these women and their fellow members maintained a lifelong commitment to the ideals and mission of the NACW. Talbert, one of the most prominent Black women of her era, became the 6th president of the NACW in 1916. At that time, she told members of the organization that "no Negro woman can afford to be an indifferent spectator of the social, moral, religious, economic, and uplift problems that are agitated around [her]." Long before becoming the NACW president, Talbert demonstrated the practical application of this philosophy. At the time when Buffalo’s Black community comprised only 1698 inhabitants, within a year of its founding, the Phyllis Wheatley Club’s membership exceeded 150 clubwomen. The group made plans for a settlement house, which opened in 1905. They developed programs to feed the hungry, donated books by Black authors to school libraries, established kindergartens for black children and organized “mother’s clubs” to teach parenting skills. The campaign to project an image of Black women and black people generally that refuted the charges made by James Jacks was an inherent component of all of their programs. In November 1900, the Club signaled its intent to confront actions, even at the highest level, that excluded Blacks from participation in the Pan American Exposition. They staged a protest rally, which attracted over 200 participants. They also demonstrated an astute understanding of the power of collaboration by inviting the head of the local temperance movement, a white women’s group to speak in support their cause. It was a bold move on their part, but these women understood the economic and socio-political importance of world’s fairs and wanted their community to share in the anticipated prosperity that 8 million fair visitors would generate. They also saw an opportunity to inform and educate white American fairgoers about the progress made by African Americans since Emancipation – through the imagery of the Negro Exhibit. This exhibit, curated by W.E.B. DuBois was first displayed at the Paris Exposition of 1900. The exhibit featured displays, charts, and photos depicting the advancements made by Blacks in the arts, education, business, medicine, science and much more. It had won an astounding 17 awards in Paris. And most importantly, it presented a stark contrast to the images of Blacks portrayed on the Pan Am’s Midway by the only two official exhibits planned for the Expo: the Old Plantation and Darkest Africa were living exhibits; the former included an actual plantation with cotton crops and slave shanties as well as a theater where minstrel shows took place; Darkest Africa also featured “natives”, dressed in scanty clothing, living in huts and performing authentic savage rituals. The “protest” rally was designed to press the Pan Am’s Board of Managers to include the Negro Exhibit as the third exhibit at the Pan Am: an affirmative advocacy stance. The women also protested the failure of the Board of Managers to appoint a representative of the race to that body. Although there were prominent Black men, who could have been suggested for this position, the group advocated for a woman: Mary B. Talbert, cited as the most accomplished Black woman in the community. Black women used this rally to promote positive images of Blacks as offered by an contemporary exhibit and a widely respected Black woman. It was interesting; however, that the protesters made no mention of the other two exhibits. That is their protest was in favor of bringing in the Negro Exhibit, appointment of Black female Commissioner and jobs for Blacks at the Fair but there is no evidence that they protested against the installation of the other exhibits. Their silence raises the question of why these women, who were so focused on creating a venue to show African American’s progress, ignored the demeaning and stereotypic images of Blacks as ignorant savages and docile, happy slaves. Perhaps they saw no need to call attention to these exhibits although their placement on the Midway gave them ample visibility for visitors. Perhaps they preferred to keep the focus of attention on the present and the advancements and contributions made by Blacks since slavery. Both of these explanations seem plausible. However something that I found later has made me think that to some extent they accepted them as part of the natural course of African American history. My interest in the PWC led to further research that uncovered information that may support the notion that there was a certain degree of acceptance of the Old Plantation and Darkest Africa exhibits even as they were focused on creating an image of Black women and men that portrayed advances and contributions since Emancipation. On April 19, 1901, a month before the opening of the Pan American Exposition and almost 111 years to the date, the Phyllis Wheatley Club produced a play – more properly labeled at the time, a pageant, which they entitled “30 Years of Freedom”. The culmination of many months of planning and rehearsal, this pageant, a three act production with 8 scenes featured a cast of more than 200 men, women and children. The three-hour performance began with act one: Slavery, in which the scenes showed plantation life, offered musical performances including minstrels, the cakewalk and other dances of the time. Act two, Freedom, while not described in the newspaper articles of the time, most certainly featured scenes from the Civil War and Emancipation. In fact, Albert Thompson, an attorney was commended for his excellent rendering of the Emancipation Proclamation. Act 3 was entitled, “Education” and offered scenes illustrating the progression of the education of Blacks and their elevation to the finer points of social life as illustrated by an act featuring a scene from the opera, Lohrengrin. A contemporary report on the pageant noted: “The entertainment opened the eyes of the white folk who saw it. They were surprised by the cleverness of some of the performers. They had no idea that persons of such talent could be found among the colored population of Buffalo.” Express, Apr. 20, 1901) The pageant was attended by over 1500; mostly white citizenry along with some the “better class of the race” according to the newspaper accounts. Again, the members of the Phyllis Wheatley Club reached out to white women enlisting many of Buffalo’s social elites as honorary chairs and committee members to ensure widespread attendance for an event that was also a fundraiser. I am amazed that these women were so bold as to confront the racial stereotypes up front for an audience that was overwhelmingly white. Yet, this was a production in which they controlled all aspects of the story line and visual representations of the historical progression of Black people. They made excellent use of the pageant as an instrument to present a positive, authentic image of Blacks and as a tool to educate a large group of people, many of whom would no doubt visit the Midway during the Exposition. The pageant included narrators, one of whom was Mary B. Talbert. The Phyllis Wheatley Club was well ahead of the times in using the pageant to illuminate African American progress. More than a decade later, in 1913 W.E.B. DuBois staged the Star of Ethiopia, a pageant to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. DuBois’ pageant outlines the history of African-Americans throughout time. The pageant is structured into a prologue and five scenes: 1) The Gift of Iron, 2) The Dream of Egypt, 3) The Glory of Ethiopia, 4) The Valley of Humiliation, and 5) The Vision Everlasting. Interspersed among these episodes were two selections from Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida. The Phyllis Wheatley Club remained one of Buffalo’s most influential Black women’s organizations for nearly years, providing the structure and mechanisms that promoted local community building and helped to shape many of the women we’ve documented as Uncrowned Queens. 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. The Phyllis Wheatley Club's record and legacy is that it members translated, into reality, the essence and meaning of their motto, "Lifting as we climb".

The Phyllis Wheatley Club of Buffalo, New York