Friends of Dorothy Burnham

Friends of Dorothy Burnham

Dorothy Burnham has been called indomitable and a treasure, a scholar and an activist. A scientist, educator, artist and writer, she was a force to be reckoned with in the civil rights movement of the 1940s and 50s. At 108 years old, she is still feisty and fearless, beloved by her former colleagues and friends at Empire State University.

In honor of her legacy and in recognition of her accomplishments at SUNY Empire and in the civil rights movement, family, friends, and colleagues recently joined together to establish the Dorothy Burnham Scholarship at SUNY Empire. This endowed scholarship fund will provide financial support for students in perpetuity, continuing to honor Dorothy’s legacy for decades to come.

Dorothy attended the prestigious Girls’ High School in Brooklyn, NY (the same school later attended by Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm), then enrolled in Brooklyn College to study science, where she became interested in civil rights and met her future husband and fellow activist, Louis Burnham. After graduating in 1936 with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, but unable to find a job in her field due to the Great Depression (Rich, 2015), she turned her attention to civil rights organizing. Louis, already an established activist in the civil rights movement, was offered a job with the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) in Birmingham, AL.

In 1941, she and Louis got married and the young couple immediately left Brooklyn for Birmingham.

During their time with SNYC, the Burnhams organized sit-ins, freedom rides, and voter registration drives. They were involved with efforts to integrate Alabama’s public transportation systems and public institutions, and campaigns against lynching and police brutality. When SNYC dissolved in 1949, she and Louis moved back to Brooklyn with their children. They had three daughters by then – Claudia, Margaret, and Linda – and their son Charles was born after their return to New York.

Back in Brooklyn, Dorothy taught biology, bioethics, and health sciences at Hostos Community College, after becoming the family’s sole breadwinner following Louis’ sudden death in 1960. Before his death, Louis and Dorothy helped to launch Freedomways: A Quarterly Review of the Negro Freedom Movement, a leading journal of the 20th century black arts and intellectual movement. Freedomways was published from 1961 to 1985, with Dorothy serving as a board member and writer throughout its duration.

In 1977, Dorothy joined the faculty at SUNY Empire, beginning her nearly four-decade long tenure with the institution. Alongside her duties as an educator, she retained her activist spirit working on behalf of the teacher’s union and other organizations advocating for gender, racial, and economic equality, both in the U.S. and abroad. In 2012, SUNY Empire honored her with the Heritage Award, which recognizes individuals who have given of themselves, their energy, and their ideals to make SUNY Empire a distinctive and exemplary institution within American higher education. Dorothy remained at Empire as an adjunct instructor until 2014, finally retiring at age 99.


The Dorothy Burnham Scholarship distributed its inaugural award in fall 2023. First envisioned by Keith Amparado ’88 and David Fullard, and supported by numerous other family, friends, and former colleagues of Dorothy’s, the scholarship will support students studying in the areas in which Dorothy worked, including Science, Technology and Mathematics; Community and Human Services; and Nursing and Allied Health.

The founders hope to support African-American women enrolled in those programs, training future generations of female scientists and activists, much like Dorothy herself. They are thrilled to have been able to create this scholarship during Dorothy’s lifetime.