Charles Eaton Burch, PhD (1891-1948)
In acknowledgement of Black History Month, The Royal Gazette continues the publication of stories throughout February on African-American, Black Bermudian and global African people, events and institutions, and their contributions in history
Charles Eaton Burch rose to the heights of academia in the United States as a professor and an internationally recognised authority on the life and works of English novelist Daniel Defoe. At Howard University in Washington, where he was chairman of the English department for 15 years, he promoted works by African-American writers. The course he created on Black poetry made Howard one of the first universities in the US to have a course about Black literature.
He is featured in several biographical publications and websites, including Harlem Renaissance Lives from the African-American National Biography, which said he “ranks high as a scholar and a specialist of 18th-century literature”.
Although he has been deceased for eight decades, he is remembered annually at Howard University’s English Department, which established the Charles Eaton Burch Memorial Lecture a year after his death.
It is not surprising that few Bermudians are aware of his accomplishments. He left Bermuda as a teenager to further his studies and never lived on the island as an adult.
Yet he retained his ties to Bermuda, speaking to church and school groups during visits back home. Just eight months before his death, he spent five weeks on the island and he and his wife, Willa Carter Mayor Burch, PhD, also an educator, gave a talk on education at the Berkeley Institute. While he has no direct descendants, his family ties are extensive. Besides the Burch clan, they include the Nearon, Trott and Reid families.
Born into a high-achieving St George’s family, Burch was the son of Charles and Helena (Nearon) Burch. According to the website encyclopaedia.com, he was “greatly influenced by his father’s passion for 17th and 18th-century literature”. It added that his father, a woodworker and entrepreneur, “played a significant role in helping him reach his goal”.
Four of the five Burch sons pursued careers in the professions. Egbert and Collingwood were pharmacists. Collingwood was also a Member of Parliament. Philip became a physician and served in the US Army during the First World War, but his career was cut short by mental illness and he would spend the rest of his life at St Brendan’s Hospital. The eldest, Carlyle, was a carpenter like his father, and a musician. A maternal uncle, Leo Fitz Nearon, MD, became a respected New York physician.
Burch attended St David’s elementary school and Berkeley. The family were initially Anglican, but later joined the AME Church. At age 15, Burch left Bermuda to attend Wilberforce College, in Ohio, a preparatory school attached to Wilberforce University, an historically Black university affiliated with the AME Church. He moved on to Wilberforce University, where he obtained a BA in 1914. In 1918, he graduated from New York’s Columbia University with an MA.
His master’s thesis at Columbia was entitled “A Survey of the Life and Poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar”. Dunbar was one of the first Blacks to receive national recognition in the US as a poet. According to encyclopedia.com, Burch was introduced to the works of Defoe at Columbia, and his interest in Defoe overshadowed his interest in poetry.
Burch taught at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1916 to 1917 and at Wilberforce University from 1918 to 1921. In 1921, he joined Howard’s English department. He moved up the ranks, becoming chairman in 1933, the same year he received a PhD from Ohio State University. His doctoral dissertation was “The English Reputation of Daniel Defoe”. While at Howard he took a sabbatical from 1927 to 1928 to study the works of Defoe at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, returning in 1938 to conduct additional research.
He made several contributions to Howard during his tenure. Besides the introduction of the course “Poetry and Prose of Negro Life”, he sought to strengthen the department by recruiting prominent scholars and outlining plans to introduce graduate-level work.
According to encyclopaedia.com: “Some departmental guidelines and precedents set by Burch continued to be used in the English department for 30 years after his death.”
Burch wrote numerous papers about Defoe that were published in academic journals in the United States, England and Germany. His publications were said to have been widely known and influential. He was working on a biography of Defoe at the time of his death. He travelled by train to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut to conduct final research. On the return trip to his home in Silver Springs, Maryland, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 56.
Burch, who had an early first marriage, was survived by his second wife, Willa Burch, whom he married in 1918, his mother and three brothers. The couple had no children.
His funeral service was held at Howard’s Rankin Memorial Chapel. Howard’s president, Mordecai Johnson, PhD, delivered the eulogy. His brother, Collingwood, travelled from Bermuda to attend the funeral. Burial was in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.
Burch’s obituaries ran in The Washington Post, The Washington Star and The Royal Gazette.
The memorial lecture, featuring talks by distinguished scholars, was established the next year. A statement written by Howard’s Department of English for the inaugural lecture held on March 25, 1949 noted his talents as a scholar and “a great teacher”, but also his zest for life. “He seemed sometimes to have come out of the coffee houses of 18th-century London, with his connoisseurship of good things, his love of good talk.”
The “best” students found him to be “inspiring”, the “slower” ones found him to be “encouraging”. He took a special interest in his fellow islanders. “Coming from Bermuda, he was widely known for his counselling of students from his home and from the British West Indies.”
The statement also said: “It is significant that the last thing that Charles Eaton Burch was seen doing before he keeled over in death was jotting down notes on a sheet of paper. The people who discovered that he was dead found a pen in his hand.”
That Burch continues to be recognised at Howard and in international biographical publications is a tribute to his legacy as an educator and scholar. His sudden and premature death was a major loss.
• Courtesy of Meredith Ebbin and bermudabiographies.bm