Women’s History Month would be hard-pressed to find a more representative role model for the celebration than Dorothy Burnham. Along with her exceptional longevity—she will turn 107 on March 22—her vita is stocked with achievements, particularly as a civil and human rights activist, an educator, and a companion of the highly esteemed Louis Burnham.
Ordinarily this column is devoted to those who have gone on to glory, but there are times—and I’ve been reminded of this point by my colleague Joseph Washington, who has been unstinting in his efforts to honor Ms. Burnham—that there are a few we need to salute before they make their transition. And I certainly agree with Mr. Washington, and let me illuminate again her many years with us. Consider: she has lived to witness the administrations of every president since Woodrow Wilson in 1913, four major world wars, momentous occasions in Black history, and two pandemics.
In an autobiographical draft, shared with me by Mr. Washington, Dorothy wrote that she was born in Brooklyn to Aletha Dowridge and Frederick Challenor, both immigrants from Barbados. She attended Girls’ High School before matriculating at Brooklyn College where she majored in biology. “When I graduated it was the Depression, so there were no jobs,” she said.
It was during this period when the Scottsboro Boys case was a headline story that she became involved in the fight for justice. Meanwhile, her future husband, Louis, was a dedicated member of several political formations including the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC), which eventuated in the couple’s move to Birmingham, Alabama in 1941.
For nearly a decade they were prominent activists in the movement, in close association with James and Esther Jackson, she told the HistoryMakers Digital Archive, as they struggled to initiate equal pay for workers, to integrate public transportation systems and public institutions as well as numerous sit-ins. When the SNYC’s office closed, she returned to Brooklyn and worked as a laboratory technician in New York City area hospitals.
By this time she had a degree in microbiology and later joined the faculty at Hostos Community College and also taught biology, bioethics, and health sciences in the adult education program at Empire State University, in the CUNY system. Despite this workload, she found time to be actively involved in the New York State Teachers Union.
None of these important endeavors interfered with her research and writing, including her membership on the board of “Freedomways” journal, where her articles often appeared in publication. “Children of the Slave Community in the U.S.,” was one such essay she penned in 1979 in a salute to the International Year of the Child. All the hardships the children endured they managed to survive, she wrote, “and most importantly of all, they were able to maintain the bonds of friendship and community which helped the children to survive and develop.”
At no point should we lose sight of Dorothy as the mother of four children—Claudia, Margaret, Linda and Charles—all of whom have made their mark, following successfully in the legacies left by their parents.
In 1960, following the sudden death of her husband who died as he was delivering a speech during Negro History Month, she became both breadwinner and homemaker, without ever quitting her role as a champion for equal rights. In a tribute to her on her 75th birthday in 1990, she was hailed by dignitaries from the world over, and many of them agreed with her children that Dorothy’s most “remarkable quality is her refusal to permit the customary boundaries to limit her experience of life.”
The tribute to her included an expansive note of appreciation from her children, now safely secure in their professions: “…You chose not only to travel in the second half of [your] life but also to embark on a new creative endeavor.” As a painter, they cited that she “sought to capture the stark and richly vivid images of her travels” as well as the ordinary life that vibrated around her in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. On that occasion, the eminent author and a product herself of a notable family, Louise Patterson, observed of Dorothy, “You give us the fortitude to follow.” And we are sure that on March 22 we will hear once more a chorus of celebration for a long life well lived.