Burrus’ Journey Began In Wheeling
From growing up in segregated Wheeling to leading a top labor union and meeting world leaders, William “Bill” Burrus has an important message to deliver from his amazing journey.
Burrus began his career as a postal clerk, then rose through the labor ranks to be elected executive vice president (in 1981) and international president (in 2000) of the American Postal Workers Union, the nation’s 10th largest union. Graduating from Lincoln High School in 1954 at the top of the last class segregated by race, he became the first, and only, African-American elected by the membership as APWU president.
He served as president for 10 years.
For seven consecutive years, Burrus said, he was listed in Jet magazine as “one of the 100 most influential African-Americans” in the country.
In his role as a union leader, he engaged in one-on-one conversations with four U.S. presidents and was seated next to South African leader Nelson Mandela at Bill Clinton’s inauguration.
After a 53-year career as a postal employee and union leader, Burrus, 78, lives with his wife in Upper Marlboro, Md., but says proudly, “I’m a son of Wheeling, W.Va.”
Far from being “retired,” he has written two books, one about his personal journey and one related to African-American history.
He is contemplating a third literary project dealing with another aspect of the African-American experience.
In celebration of Black History Month, the Wheeling native returned home Tuesday, Feb. 10, to speak at the Ohio County Public Library. Burrus also enjoyed an informal reunion with some of his Lincoln High classmates at the Lunch With Books session.
Burrus noted that it was his first visit to the present public library. He said he never entered the previous library building in Center Wheeling because, as a child, he was restricted to using a “colored” library on 12th Street.
He was born in December 1936, an era when “race was perceived as descriptive of one’s character and one’s abilities.” But, “the times have changed,” he said.
“My time in Wheeling was difficult because I was a colored child,” he said.
However, the journey from his childhood in Wheeling to becoming president of a major union “could only have happened in the United States of America. It could not have happened in any other country,” he commented. “I am very thankful of being a citizen of the United States of America and what it has afforded me in my career.”
Relating that his position included travels to Japan, China and France, he said, “It’s been an experience, and I’m most appreciative of where I began. I was proud to say I was from West Virginia.”
Reflecting on his hometown, Burrus said, “This community nurtured all of us. We have gone to live productive lives, no matter how we began.
“I’ve been successful in blazing a path in this lifetime,” Burrus said, adding that he is “very appreciative of the opportunities” received over the years. “The day-to-day struggles, the living, the maturation, they began for me in Wheeling, W.Va. … It was here in Wheeling I matured as a human being and developed the foundation for who I was to become.”
After being introduced to the library audience by the Rev. Willie Nevels, a close friend and Lincoln classmate, Burrus referred to Wheeling as “this place that paid such an important part in my life. The world was a different place. I’ve traveled to a number of places, but it will always be my home. Wheeling will always be my home place.”
In his first book, “My Journey: A Postal and Unique American Experience,” Burrus shared his personal triumphs. His second book, “Black History We Remember,” examined the progress and struggles of African-Americans from slavery to the presidency of Barack Obama, he said.
After spending his earliest years with his parents in East Wheeling, he was placed in foster care for two years before returning to Wheeling. While attending school, he was employed as a paper carrier for The Intelligencer, worked with his father as a custodian at Horne’s department store and, at 16, became the only custodian at Fulton National Bank.
He also worked in his parents’ newsstand.
He attended Blessed Martin School, a Catholic institution for black children, for two years before enrolling in Lincoln School. “The nuns (at Blessed Martin) were very, very good and very compassionate,” he said. “I didn’t understand why there was another Catholic school only a block away.”
At that time, he recalled, “There was separation of races in housing. We were herded into places dominated by people of color.
“I never knew a Caucasian except in my employment,” he remarked. “It was like living in two countries.
“We were in two different worlds. We attended different schools and churches. We played on different playgrounds. In the military, we attended different movie theaters,” he said.
In that era in America, people were segregated “not because of the way they acted, income, intellect or values they held, but merely by the color of their skin,” he said.
As a youth, he said, “I had to walk to Bridgeport to go to the movies.” At the roller skating rink, “we were restricted to Mondays only,” he added.
Noting that “mine was the last generation to be denied public accommodation,” he said, “At Louis’ Hot Dogs, I could not be seated (in the restaurant). I was forced to order from the window.”
Burrus said he won a Stifel prize every year in high school and was the top student in his class, but “I could not attend any of the local colleges in the Wheeling area.” He wanted to be an engineer, but his father could not afford to send him to a historically black college, so he enlisted in the Army upon graduation.
Burrus left Wheeling in 1954 to enter the Army. His parents relocated to Detroit while he was in the service.
“My path to success had to be in places where I’d never been, among people I’d never known, doing things I’d never done,” he said.
In 1958, he took a job as a postal clerk in Cleveland, where his sister lived.
He became involved in the union that represents clerks, maintenance employees and drivers for the U.S. Postal Service. It remains the largest union for workers in the postal system, he said.
Asked if he experienced resistance during his union campaigns, Burrus said, “Absolutely … There were places where African-Americans didn’t have civil rights. There were individuals who did not like me because of the color of my skin. Others – many more – stood for me based on my abilities. I never had a close election.”
Burrus, who wrote the autobiography to share with his children and grandchildren, encouraged audience members to write or record their own stories.
“Everyone should write down parts of their life, first-hand records of how you lived your life,” he said. “Everyone should take the time. We aren’t all authors, but we should take the time … Future generations should know our stories. Just make a recording if you don’t want to write it out, for future generations of your family and inquiring minds.”
Burrus described his second book as “a tribute to millions of human beings who struggle to achieve equality in this country.” He commented, “We know more about the Holocaust than we do the 400 years of struggle from the first slaves to the election of Barack Obama.”
In the book, he wanted to put slavery into human perspective as “an insidious and cruel segregation of millions of human beings.” Slaves had “no protection by the state whatsoever” and had to endure “pain and indignity to be paraded naked before buyers as a commodity,” he said.
He said indentured servant John Punch was the first recorded slave for life based on the color of skin. Punch, a man of color, and two white servants escaped in 1640; upon being caught, the Caucasians had extra years added to their indenture, but Punch was sentenced to life in servitude. “From that time forward, children were slaves for life,” Burrus said.
Another injustice, he pointed out, was in that time, a person’s station in life was determined by the father; however, in the system of slavery, a female slave’s child was a slave automatically, regardless of who the biological father was.
“We celebrate Black History Month so we can know the truth … Black History Month is a time of reflection on the suffering of our ancestors to get us to this point,” he said. Although inequality still exists, “we are light years ahead of where we were,” he observed.
A topic for another book probably will be about the assimilation of black teachers after school desegregation occurred in the mid-1950s, Burrus said. “We had an entire system in West Virginia. I don’t know what happened to them,” he said.