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Dorchester activist honored with building name

For more than 50 years, Thelma Burns has been a fixture in Boston’s civic life, and at 79 she remains active in a host of charitable ventures and social causes.

She fights against rising housing costs in Roxbury and Dorchester, and works to improve educational access for minority students. In her spare time, she volunteers at the
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

By all accounts, Burns has dedicated her life to the betterment of others. On Friday, it’s her turn in the spotlight.

Action for Boston Community Development, a leading antipoverty group, will honor the longtime activist by naming its new Grove Hall facility in her honor.


The Thelma D. Burns building will be the centerpiece of the group’s expansion in Roxbury and North Dorchester, and will feature a community garden, a neighborhood resource center, and educational programs for students.

Thelma Burns. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

More than 300 people are expected to attend the dedication ceremony, which will feature speeches from Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and US Representative Michael Capuano.

Burns, a longtime Dorchester resident who has served on the group’s board of directors for more than 35 years, said she is humbled by the tribute.

“I’m proud to be a part of the community of people who stepped up to the plate and looked out for their own,” Burns said. “To see organization like ABCD continue to build in-
stitutions, and a Roxbury-Dorchester Campus, is going to be wonderful.”

John J. Drew, the group’s president, said the decision to honor Burns was “a no-brainer.” Burns was instrumental in helping organize the building’s purchase about one year ago, he said.

“We’re tired of dedications of dead people,” Drew said. “Let’s do something while she’s alive.”

In a statement, Walsh said Burns “embodies what it means to be a true neighborhood champion.”

“I thank her for her years of service to our community, most notably through her work for the Action for Boston Community Development, and for her lifelong commitment to making Boston a better place for everyone,” Walsh said.


And Burns was something of an accidental activist.

In the spring of 1965, Burns’s daughter attended Christopher Gibson Elementary in Dorchester when the school was flung into controversy. A white substitute teacher named Jonathan Kozol was fired for reading the poems of Langston Hughes to his fourth-grade students.

One 1940 poem, “Ballad of the Landlord,” was about the struggles for black tenants and their families, and Kozol was fired for deviating from the curriculum.

Upset, Burns and other parents began picketing with their children in protest. Kozol never regained his job, but in that fight, Burns found her voice for activism and social justice.

“It really ignited the civil rights movement in Boston,” Burns said of the protests, chronicled in Kozol’s 1967 book “Death at an Early Age: The Destruction of the Hearts and Minds of Negro Children in the Boston Public Schools.”

“It was the first time something like that happened,” Burns recalled. “And that’s how I became involved in the school system.”

Burns went on to direct the METCO program in the Belmont public schools for 28 years, retiring in 2008. She also worked on several community boards in Boston, including the Central Boston Elder Services, the Mayor’s Senior Advisory Council, and the Roxbury YMCA. In 1968, Burns was a Robert F. Kennedy felllow in Washington, with a focus on social justice.

Burns is also a registered nurse and has twice survived cancer.

As news of her honor has spread, Burns has received an outpouring of congratulations.


“I didn’t know I was so popular. The last couple weeks, everybody has been calling me,” Burns said with a laugh. “It’s really sinking in now.”

To this day, Burns inspires young activists, particularly minority women, to make a difference in their community, Drew said. He said he wonders where she “gets the energy” at nearly 80 years old, and likened her to legendary Roxbury activist Melnea Cass.

“We’ve made much progress, but there’s still so much work to go,” Drew said. “We need people like Thelma.”

Astead W. Herndon can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.