As she lay in her death bed, Thelma D. Burns had one request: someone needed to distribute free Thanksgiving turkey vouchers in her absence.
“In the last hours of her life, she . . . was making sure that other people would have the meal she would not live to eat,” said the Rev. Dr. Ray Hammond of the Bethel A.M.E. Church. “Who does that?”
Hundreds of elected officials, nonprofit leaders, clergy, and community members packed Morning Star Baptist Church Tuesday morning to celebrate the late Dorchester activist, who spent decades pushing for equity in the state’s schools and local community. Mrs. Burns died on Nov. 18 at age 86.
Born in Cambridge in 1936, Mrs. Burns stumbled into activism by chance. In 1965, her daughter attended Christopher Gibson Elementary in Dorchester when the school fired Jonathan Kozol, a white substitute teacher, for teaching Langston Hughes’ poetry to fourth grade students. She, along with a group of concerned parents, picketed in protest of the school’s decision.
The school never rehired Kozol, but the fight ignited an activist fire in Mrs. Burns that would never be extinguished. She cofounded and served as executive director of the now defunct Storefront Learning Center, a community-based education program in the South End focusing on inner-city youth. She sought more schooling beyond her nursing certification, earning her bachelor’s in education from Boston University and a master’s in education administration from Harvard.
At the height of Boston’s busing crisis, Mrs. Burns led Cohasset’s Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity program, or METCO. And in 1980, she took the reins of Belmont Public Schools’ METCO program where she remained for more than 20 years.
It was at Belmont that she met a young Michael Bivins, of the critically acclaimed boy groups New Edition and Bell Biv DeVoe. At her memorial service, Bivins recalled when he and a classmate got into trouble. Mrs. Burns crafted a unique punishment: Bivins would have to memorize the Declaration of Independence in an hour. In return, he pleaded that Mrs. Burns keep his mischief from his mother.
Gesturing to Mrs. Burns’ daughters, Bivins said, “My biggest secret is with your mother,” to laughter and applause.
US Representative Ayanna Pressley said that “whenever [Mrs. Burns] entered a room, you knew it.” Statuesque, well-dressed in her Delta Sigma Theta red, and donning stylish hairstyles, “[Mrs. Burns’] very presence shifted the energy.”
“Anyone who calls themselves leader could learn a lesson from her,” Pressley said. “Her quiet power commanded your attention, and demanded action.”
Mayor Michelle Wu said the late activist gave her “a sense of being seen,” as a newly elected city councilor also raising a young family. When then-councilor Wu would hop from event to event with her two sons in tow, Mrs. Burns would say, “Leave [your children] with me.”
Her first year in office has been tiring, Wu said, but she couldn’t imagine what Burns went through all those years.
“I don’t know how Mrs. Burns was basically mayor for 86 years,” Wu said.
For former city councilor John R. Connolly, Mrs. Burns “was love personified.” Connolly recalled when she gave him a list of local youth of color who needed city jobs. When Connolly hired them to help upkeep the city’s parks, he received another call from Mrs. Burns.
“‘I don’t want them picking out in the parks, I don’t want them doing menial labor,’” Mrs. Burns told him. “‘I want them in offices, and I want them to have ties and dresses.’”
Connolly apologized profusely for his slip-up, and she met him with patience. “‘We’re all learning, just go out and do it,’” he recalled her answering.
A two-time cancer survivor, she also volunteered at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
Mrs. Burns served for more than three decades on the board of Action for Boston Community Development, which in 2016 named a building in her honor. She also filled several leadership roles on community boards, including Central Boston Elder Services, the Mayor’s Senior Advisory Council, and the Roxbury YMCA.
Mrs. Burns is survived by her husband of 66 years, Edward Burns; children Gemma Burns, Karen Burns White, and Candace Burns; grandsons Kyle White and Dr. Cedric White; a great-granddaughter Morgan White; as well as scores of nieces, nephews, and in-laws, according to an obituary.
Attendees inched out of the church at a snail’s pace, getting a final viewing of Mrs. Burns and taking the chance to speak with her family. As she received condolences from the crowd, Gemma Burns had no tears, only smiles.
“[Thelma Burns] wouldn’t have had it any other way,” she said, referring to the amount of guests.