Memphis Memorial - Mothers
At times we joked about our Mother going to work outside the house for the first time after our Dad retired – before then she took care of kids at our house for years. After her first job “in the world” she went to work for families in their homes, housekeeping and sometimes looking after their children. She was around 73 (exact dates escape me) when she had a stroke at work in one of those houses. Emma Burse also worked as a “domestic” in white families’ home, both in Alabama and in Memphis after she moved here. Simple women, both inspired generations and contributed greatly to this country, though neither had certain legal rights in this country, for very different reasons. My Mother was not a citizen, but was here by choice. When she was older she told me she had left her family and faith and would not “leave” her country. When she spoke of home, it was not that house in the city, but that village in England. If she had become a citizen, she would have been allowed to vote. Emma Burse was a citizen, but an African-American woman whose ancestors were not here by choice. She may never have voted, denied that right as a women until after her 46th birthday in 1920 and the victim of discriminatory practices her entire life. Still, they worked and raised children – six for my parents - Emma and husband Robert had 15 children! Like my Mother, I can’t imagine Emma Burse NOT also influencing children in the families where she worked. I’m sure she taught them all to keep going through adversity as my Mom did. My Mother benefitted from excellent medical care and rehabilitation after her stroke – and despite setbacks, lived a fully active life until her death at 90 years old. Upon her death I spoke of her contributions to this country as a non-citizen – a family of veterans, children with grand- and great-grandchildren, nourishing and enriching everyone she came in contact with, a positive influence that will continue, giving her a type of immortality. Mrs. Burse was not as fortunate. She died of lobar pneumonia in February 1940 – at age 73.
Emma Burse has a special place in American history. In addition to being responsible for a small empire of descendants, she gave birth to two influential musicians, Robert and Charlie Burse, whose talents will ripple through centuries. The search for her son Charlie’s grave first brought me to Rose Hill Cemetery, one reason why I’m coordinating a service project here. I didn’t know who she was when I found her hand-scrawled concrete slab marker, but after Arlo Leach informed me I started going to her grave for support, inspiration, to let her know what we were up to, and sometimes just to say hello. I plan to honor her inspiration and contribution with a special planting this week, and barring any new revelations (we do not know where in Rose Hill he is buried), his memorial will soon sit beside hers. Two ladies from totally different times and worlds, their stories converging in South Memphis on a hot September day.