Series Two of The Wheeling Memory Project features William Burrus (1937-2018), who was born on 12th Street in Wheeling in 1937 and completed his schooling at Lincoln High School, Wheeling's segregated school for black students, graduating in the last class segregated by race in 1954. His father, William Burrus Sr., owned and operated a Beauty Shop and News Stand on Chapline St. from 1949 to 1955.
After serving in the military for 3 years William Burrus got a job with the United States Postal Service and, in 1980, was elected to the 2nd ranking position Executive Vice President, serving for 21 years when he was elected as International President. He is the only African American elected by the membership of an international union as President. He served for 9 years, retiring after a 53 year career.
From the humble beginnings in Wheeling William Burrus succeeded in being elected to the presidency of the 10th largest union in the country with members in every city in America. As union president he was elected as Vice President AFL CIO and Vice President UNI, the world affiliation of unions.
Burrus is the author of two books, an autobiography, My Journey: A Postal & Unique American Experience and Black History We Remember.
During his 2015 interview for the Wheeling Memory Project at the Ohio County Public Library, Burrus recalled working with his uncle who shined shoes at the McLure Hotel. “They had colored restrooms. And I was about twelve years old I guess, and it was so demeaning to me that here I was forced in the hotel to assist my Uncle in shining shoes and I couldn't even use the other restroom.” He also remembered “Colored Only” signs on the water fountains.
Burrus attended Blessed Martin High School (the segregated Catholic school) for two years, but left because he wanted to play football, and Blessed Martin only offered basketball.
“Once a year, our coach, Mr. Kinney, would take us to Wheeling High after hours, after all the kids were gone,” Burrus recalled. “It was in the dark. And they would permit us to go through their used equipment, and we would take that back to Lincoln and that was the equipment that we used...They would bring us in there after the school was closed so they wouldn't see us. And that was so very, very demeaning. I mean, you can imagine, a 15, 16-year-old kid sneaking in, with his coach, into the bowels of the high school…and we all remembered that. That's where we got our football equipment from.”
The impacts of Jim Crow laws were most keenly felt and vividly remembered when they limited access to social and cultural activities taken for granted by whites.
Burrus remembered, for example, being unable to enter the premises of Louis Famous Hotdog, a popular restaurant located on 11th Street, just at the southern edge of the black neighborhood. “I could only get a hot dog through the side window,” Burrus recalled. “And I was conscious enough, and we were close enough to Ohio and Pennsylvania where they did not have those Jim Crow laws. I could see and feel the differences that were imposed upon me because of the color of my skin.”
After serving in the Army, William Burrus migrated to Cleveland and began his career with the United States Postal Service and as a union leader.
“I've traveled around the world,” he said. “I've met four presidents up close and personal. I've met Nelson Mandela. I've met kings and queens of other countries, and no matter where I went or what activities I was involved in, I was proud to represent that my home was Wheeling, West Virginia. That's where I was born, that's where I was raised. That's the foundation of who I am. I was disappointed that...I don't think that Wheeling was proud of me...”
Though he did not live to enjoy the accolades (Mr. Burrus died on May 19, 2018), he was inducted into the Wheeling Hall of Fame on June 7, 2019. Wheeling is indeed proud of William Burrus.
The Wheeling Memory Project is pleased to present William Burrus’s story, in his own words.
More videos are coming soon in this series. Check back regularly for updates.
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