Dr. Anna Porter Burrell; "A Quiet Break Through."

By Lettko, Karen | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2003 | Go to article overview
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Dr. Anna Porter Burrell; "A Quiet Break Through."


Lettko, Karen, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


When we look at how change comes about in society, we often look to major events or prominent persons and attribute change to them. For example, when we think of desegregation, the famous court case Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) comes to mind. Further, we associate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with the success of The Civil Rights Movement. Yet, change is a progressive process and takes place over time. It is often a slow process that is the culmination of the acts of many ordinary people who are not well known. Therefore, it is important to investigate "smaller" events, those on the local and regional level, and the people involved in them, to understand how change takes place over time. One such person worthy of study is Dr. Anna Porter Burrell.

Dr. Burrell was the first African American faculty member to be hired at Buffalo State College. Hired in 1948, she set the precedent at the college for hiring African American faculty. Setting the precedent or being the "first" involves tremendous responsibility. She carried her responsibility well and opened the door so that others could follow. Dr. E. O. Smith, chair of the History and Social Studies Department at Buffalo State College, referred to Burrell's success at the college as a "quiet break through." (2) This remark was in no way intended to make light of her accomplishments. Quite the opposite is true, it described her ability to break through and overcome barriers in her professional career.

"Quiet break through" refers to the fact that there was no major event that made her well known or famous. If it was not for the fact that Burrell was of African American descent she may have been overlooked in the history of Buffalo State College. Yet, because of her race she was able to make a difference. Her career focused on the worth and dignity of the individual to create a more harmonious society. Because she was well respected among the faculty and the students at the college her message had a receptive audience.

To begin Burrell's story we need to examine her own education, how she was hired at the college and what she wrote and lectured about so that we can get a better perspective of her, as an individual. She did not come to the college until she was forty-four years old and it would be a distortion to ignore those prior years. Burrell grew up in Philadelphia, PA. and attended high school and Normal school there (a two year training college for teachers), graduating in 1921. Even as late as 1940, 93% of African Americans had not completed high school. (3) At that time a career in teaching was one of the few acceptable avenues open to females who wished to pursue higher education. (4)

Burrell continued to defy the statistics, and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and attained her B.S. Degree in chemistry, in 1923. She spent the next two years teaching chemistry at Lincoln University. To strive to improve her own education she returned to the University of Pennsylvania to complete her M.S. Degree in medical sciences in 1926. These facts alone do not fully explain her educational accomplishments. First, the financial aspect of paying for her education cannot be over looked because it tells us what was important to her family and to her. While attending the University of Pennsylvania she did not receive any financial aid, scholarship, or funds from outside employment. (5) From this information it can be assumed that her parents were supportive of her educational pursuits. Her father worked as a minister, which was a respected profession, and her mother did not work outside of the home. (6) The emotional and financial support she received from her family was essential, especially since she was studying in a field that was outside the normal realm for females and for an African American attending a Northern white college.

In 1926, the year Burrell received her M.S. Degree, the University of Pennsylvania awarded only eighty-one M.

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