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Some Dayton Saints and Prophets
Dr. William Burns



      When death stepped in, not so very long ago, and cut short at thirty-two, the life of William Burns, the young negro physician, no one would deny that the loss was not only a private, but a public one.  He was, to be sure, a quiet young fellow, going about his daily business as a family doctor, with no thought of being remarkable.  His friend, Paul Dunbar, was in the lime-light; William Burns in the shadow.  The two had been devoted friends from boyhood; went through the public schools and High School together.  Paul was destined to become widely known as a man of letters; William to study medicine, and to settle down to its rather monotonous practice.  I perhaps venture contradiction, but will still record it as a personal conviction, that William Burns was, in a truer, greater sense than Paul, the friend and leader of his race in Dayton.  Dunbar had genius.  A genius always stands aloof.  Burns was one of the extraordinary ordinary people, who suggest indirectly that what they have done can be done by others.  Dunbar represented unattainable things; Burns the attainable.  Few of his race can write poems; many could live, if they chose to make the effort and the sacrifice, the faithful, well-ordered, honorable life of which William Burns was an exponent.

      In a much wider sense than is usually meant, William Burns was a "self-made man."  Losing his parents early in life, he owed the first help to an uncle.  Later he found in Captain Stivers, with whom he lived many years, a friend and an inspirer.  I can see, as from my upper window, that looked over Captain's fruit garden, the master and the man at work together; Captain tying up vines and pruning trees, William spading or raking; the Captain's long legs and waving coat tails, William's short jacket and brown pleasant face.  His face was more than pleasant---it was beautiful, especially when he smiled, so was his voice; and his manner, when he grew up, succeeded in being (what is so difficult for the negro whose development entitles him to association with white people) neither servile nor assertive, but simply genuine, gentle, and courteous. For a colored man, this was a distinct triumph.  No one ever wanted to keep Dr. Burns "in his place." Why should they, when his place was so worthily held, and so deserving of love and honor?  When you knew "Willie Burns" well enough to call him that; when you had seen him in his professional work in the sick room; when you had worked with him on committees, you ceased to think whether he were black or white.  There was no race question any more.  He was he, and you were you, and that's all there was about it.  How true it is that modesty unlocks many a door barred uncompromisingly to assertiveness!

      When William lived at Captain Stivers, he was a High School student, and Captain Stivers was principal; so the connection between them was not only that of employer and employed, but of teacher and pupil. It was during those years that the idea of studying medicine was born in the boy's mind, an idea which his principal encouraged, recognizing in the boy the student capacity.  The High School course was not easy of accomplishment, because after school hours there were the household "chores" to attend to, with lessons in the evening, and the garden on Saturdays.  In 1893, William went into the office of Dr. J. 0. Reeve to study medicine, keeping his home and its duties as before.  Dr. Reeve writes:


            "He was a patient, painstaking student, and pursued his studies with a full sense of the heavy task he had undertaken, and a clear recognition of the responsibilities he would assume in practicing medicine.  At Cleveland, with indomitable courage, he supported himself with infinite patience and industry, gaining his living during his college course by some occupations neither easy nor agreeable.  Finally he obtained his degree from the Medical Department of Western Reserve University, a medical school always of high standing, and which since has so advanced its requirements that it ranks among the first half dozen in the Union.

      "Dr. Burns soon gained a good reputation as a physician, and enjoyed a large practice.  His patients were not alone of his own race.  He told me once, and I heard with pleasure, of the amount of support he received from the white people.

      "Dr. Burns was not a brilliant man, a fact which is not surprising; but he was industrious, diligent, conscientious, careful in the practice of his profession, honest and upright in his conduct and walk in life.  His charitable work was very large; he gave his services freely to those who needed, and in his race there are proportionally more than a usual number of the needy to call upon the physician for aid."


      His education finished, William Burns, now "Doctor," opened an office on Fifth Street.  His qualifications were such that he was made a member of the County Medical Society, the first colored physician so honored.  His practice grew.   He was not only the medical adviser of his people, but their friend.  Everything connected with the education and advance of his race interested him. He liked to see negro boys ambitious and industrious.  He always hoped for a Young Men's Christian Association for colored men. (ED. note at bottom of page.  --- 0h, that there could be a Burns Memorial, as there is to be a Dunbar Memorial!)  When Christ Church established the St. Margaret's Industrial School for women, Dr. Burns was a valued member of the committee, where his good sense and judgment were greatly depended upon.  When this infant, and now defunct organization was struggling under adverse criticism from both white and black; when it was endeavoring to preserve the financial support of the white people, and the loyalty of the black; then, what a help was Dr. Burns!  He knew the white position, he knew the black; and that must, in the end, be the function of the prophets of any race.  They must see all sides.  Dr. Burns did; that is why he grew in his work, and why people came more and more to depend upon him.  I cannot conceive of a life which had greater promise in it for himself, or of encouragement for his race.  In himself he was an unconscious, but perpetual asservation that there may be a possible ground of intercourse between the races that shall be better, safer, and happier than the old; an intercourse, not based upon coercion, either of master and slave, or of employer and employed; in which there shall be neither bitterness or jealousy upon one side nor domineering patronage upon the other; where racial amalgamation need not be feared, and where common human sympathies result in a common human friendship.  This promise, which the events of the present seem to deny, William Burns would have helped toward fullfilling.  This is why he was a loss to Dayton.

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      The Dayton Evening Herald wrote editorially at the time of his death:


            "What is the secret of this wide-spread sorrow for William Burns?  Simply that he was a man of  noble nature, gentle, kindly, sincere, of fine instincts, of unerring integrity, of lofty purpose, of devotion to his chosen calling among his own people.  Beginning humbly, early conceiving the ambition to acquire an education, and to succeed in life through his own efforts and upon his own merits, young Burns had reached that plane where prejudice yields before the conquering excellence of individual achievement.

            "He knew full well that men of his color labor under a handicap in his race of life, and that the task before him, self-set, but definite, was to be accomplished only through patience and untiring faith.  These he had in large measure, and with them he possessed the innate qualities of heart and mind, which mark nature's noblemen, white or black, rich or poor.  He was instinctively generous, as his patients well knew; he loved and honored his high profession for itself far more than for its emoluments.  With William Burns, the habit of true courtesy, of quiet, gracious speech and act, was inborn.  In every good work among the colored people of Dayton, whether religious or social, he was always first and helpful. No effort for their advancement was counted complete, lacking his cooperation, and no such effort ever lacked it.

            "No member of his race has ever enjoyed a wider circle of true friends among the white people of this city; his modesty, his perception, and acceptance of social distinctions, his air of unconscious good breeding were ever in evidence to minimize the accident of birth, and to obliterate the sharpness of social lines.  His brief career was an encouragement to those who labor and hope for the ultimate elevation of all his people to the level to which he had climbed."

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