Though a native of Georgia, Georgia Burke spent at least ten years in Wilson, teaching third and fourth grade (and coaching basketball and tennis) to the children of the Colored Graded School and the Wilson Normal and Industrial Institute. She was one of the eleven teachers who walked off the job in support of Mary C. Euell in 1918 and, in 1921, was involved in another incident in which “a race riot was narrowly averted.” Burke auditioned for a Broadway on a lark in 1928, got the role, and never returned to teaching.
“Reach in your pocket. There … find a dime & look at the face of it.” You will find the likeness of United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Who was the artist who fashioned the likeness the graces our national currency? Mooresville native, Dr. Selma H. Burke, a native of Mooresville, Iredell County, an American woman descended from slaves.
The daughter of an African Methodist Episcopal Zion minister, Burke was born 31 December 31 1900. Around 1907, playing in the mud in a creek near School Street, Burke realized that she had a fascination with and talent for sculpting. Her mother, knowing she needed more “practical” training, persuaded her to further her education at the school now known as Winston-Salem State University. Burke made her way to Harlem, New York City, as a nurse, but by the mid-1930s was the recipient of the grants that allowed her to study sculpting in the U.S. and Europe. In 1944 she won a competition, securing commissioned to sculpt a plaque portrait of Franklin Roosevelt. It was unveiled in 1945 and adapted for use on the dime, though credited to engraver John Sinnock.
Burke, wearing a smock, seated next to her portrait bust of Booker T. Washington, 1930s.
Burke’s portrait and an original bust she sculpted can be found in the Mooresville Public Library.
In local lore, this incident has been conflated with the Charles Coon slapping incident of 1918. The teachers “Burns” and “Izell” were probably Georgia M. Burke and Mary C. Euell. Euell had been at the center of the Coon matter. Capable, courageous Mr. Bowser, “very much of a man,” was likely Burt L. Bowser, who owned a small restaurant. The Gay Brothers, Charles and Allen T., operated a dry goods store at 216-220 East Nash Street.
Mrs. Jasper Coley — Laura (or Laurena) V. Coley, daughter of Isaac and Penny Coley, married Jasper Allison Coley on 6 June 1912 in Wayne County. A native of Pikeville, Wayne County, like her husband, Laura died 12 May 1923. She was a teacher. Jasper Coley was the son of Phillip R. and Annie Exum Coley. He is listed in Wilson city directories in the early 1920s as a carpenter, a plasterer and a bricklayer, and lived at 401 North Vick Street.
Mrs. William Hines — Ethel Cornwell Hines (1894-1983) was a South Carolina native.
Mrs. Stattie Cannon — In the 1910 census of Wilson, Wilson County: Charles Cannon, 35, barber in a “white shop”; wife Statie, 34; and children Charles, 11, Ruth, 9, and Statie Benton, 13. In the 1922 Wilson city directory, Stattie Cannon is listed as a dressmaker and Charles Cannon as a carpenter; both resided at 724 East Green Street. In the 1940 census of Newark, Essex County, New Jersey: Charles Cannon, 44, mother Stattie Cannon, 65, brother-in-law Fred Langford, 29, and sister Ruth Langford, 33. All were born in North Carolina and described as “white.”
A.N. Darden — Arthur N. Darden (1889-1948) was a son of Charles H. and Dinah Scarborough Darden and worked in his father’s undertaking business.
Mrs. S.L. Bowser — Burt Bowser, born in Halifax County, married Sarah Rountree, daughter of Peter and Lucinda Rountree, on 4 December 1888 in Wilson. Reddin S. Wilkins, A.J. Lindsay and JamesW. Parrington were witnesses to the ceremony. In the 1900 census, Burt L. Bowser is described as a bar tender and in 1910 as the conductor of a pool room. Sarah is described as a dressmaker. Burt Landers Bowser died in 1920; Sarah Bowser, in 1935.
John Spells — In the 1920 census of Wilson, Wilson County: on Pender Street, carpenter John E. Spell, 50, wife Martha A., 39, and son John E., Jr., 16. (John’s death certificate lists his middle name as Stephen.) Martha A. Spell, a native of Guilford County, died in Wilson in 1966.
Wesley Rogers — Per the city directory, in 1922, John Wesley Rogers lived at 548 East Nash Street and worked as a porter at Oettinger’s department store. His wife, a native of Johnston County, was Mary Elizabeth Thomas Rogers (1878-1950). Rogers was born in Durham County in 1870 and died in Wilson in 1951.
Deby Harper — Deborah Harper Swindell was the daughter of Argent Harper. She was briefly married to Louis Swindell.
Dr. and Mrs. J.B. Darden — Pharmacist James Benjamin Darden was a brother of Arthur and Camillus Darden. After a brief partnership with his brother John W. Darden, a doctor in Opelika, Alabama, he settled in Petersburg, Virginia.
Mrs. A.B. Bowser — Astor Burt Bowser, born 1896, was a son of Burt L. and Sarah L. Bowser, above. He married Deloris Harvey of Alamance County on 17 August 1921 in Wilson. Rev. B.P. Coward officiated. In the 1930 census, the couple and their children, Astor B., Jr., and Sarah, are listed in Chicago, Illinois. Astor worked as an artist in his own studio and Deloris as a saleslady in a millinery. Astor died in Hennepin County, Minnesota, in 1981.
In the late summer of 1922, the New York Age‘s Wilson correspondent included this short snippet in her report of Black Wide-Awake’s social swirl:
New York Age, 9 September 1922.
The Battle sisters, teacher Georgia Burke and nurse Henrietta Colvert were neighbors as well as travel companions. In the 1920 census of the Town of Wilson, Wilson County: at 330 South Spring Street, Henrietta Colvert is listed as a boarder in the household of widow Nannie Best, 61, and her extended family Frank, 30, Aaron, 21, Estelle, 19, and Harper Best, 65. Next door, at 332: widow Ella Battle, 52, and her children Grace [Glace], 27, teacher Roberta, 29, tobacco worker John, 25, and Olga Battle, 11, shared their home with boarders Georgia Burks, 25, a Georgia-born teacher, and chauffeur Theodore Speight, 17; and roomers William Phillips, 35, a dentist, and his wife Jewel, 23.
Burke taught in Wilson for at least ten years. In April 1918, she was one of eleven African-American teachers who resigned to protest the slapping of a black teacher by school superintendent Charles L. Coon and the disrespect shown them by Colored Graded School principal J.D. Reid. With the others, Burke resumed teaching at the privately funded Wilson Independent School. (More about this infamous and revolutionary incident soon.)
In 1928, while taking a summer course at Columbia, she sang a few songs while attending a rehearsal for “Blackbirds of 1928.” Hired for the choir, she took a year’s leave of absence from teaching. She never returned.
The Afro-American, 6 May 1944.
New York Age, 26 March 1949.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 8 March 1953.
“Georgia Burke, 107, Acted Character Roles.”
Georgia Burke, an actress who played character roles on Broadway from the 1920’s until her retirement in the 1960’s, died in the De Witt Nursing Home in Manhattan last Thursday. According to the records of the Actors Fund of America, she was 107 years old.
Miss Burke appeared on Broadway in “The Grass Harp,” “The Wisteria Trees,” “No Time for Comedy,” “Mamba’s Daughters,” “They Shall Not Die,” “Anna Lucasta,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Cabin in the Sky,” “Mandingo” and “Decision,” for which she won the Donaldson Award in 1944.
Born on Feb. 27, 1878, in La Grange, Ga., Miss Burke studied at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S. C., and taught fourth grade for six years.
In 1929, she came to New York to take a summer course at Columbia University. At the time a black choir was being assembled for ”Blackbirds” on Broadway. A friend persuaded her to audition. She sang ”St. Louis Blues” and was hired on the spot and she left teaching to pursue an acting career.
In addition, Miss Burke appeared on radio and television serials. For five years before and during World War II, she played the role of a nurse in ”When a Girl Marries.” There are no known survivors. A service, sponsored by the Actors Fund, will be held at noon tomorrow at the Walter B. Cooke Funeral Home, 1504 Third Avenue. — New York Times, 4 December 1985.
Georgia Burke in “Anna Lucasta,” New York Age, 28 February 1959.