Black History Month: Bessie Burke’s Education Legacy

In 1911, Bessie Bruington Burke made history as the first African American teacher in the Los Angeles, California, public school system. Just seven years later, she made history again when she became the school system’s first African American school principal.  

Top of Her Class 

Burke was born in Los Angeles in 1891. Several years earlier, her parents had left farming and teaching in Kansas. They migrated west in a covered wagon and settled in what is today North Hollywood, California. Burke attended Polytechnic High School in Pasadena. After graduating, she enrolled in the Los Angeles State Normal School, which eventually became the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). A “normal school” was a college for training teachers. Burke used her passion for education to earn her teaching certificate in 1911. When the teacher’s exam was given for the Los Angeles City School District, Burke scored seventh out of 800 applicants. 

Panorama of Los Angeles [between 1898 and 1905]
A photo of Los Angeles, California in the early twentieth century.

Getting Hired 

A year before Burke earned her teaching certificate, the 51st Street School (later renamed Holmes Avenue Elementary School) was built in a Los Angeles African American community known as Furlong Tract. It was the first Los Angeles school built for neighborhood children in an African American community. While the students were African American, the teachers and principal were White Americans. At that time, discrimination prevented the hiring of African American teachers. Despite Burke’s high score on the teacher’s exam, it took pressure from the community to hire her as a teacher at the 51st Street School in 1911. 

In 1918, Burke was promoted to principal of the school. In her first year as principal, she oversaw five teachers and about 100 students. By 1928, she had sixteen teachers working for her, with a school enrollment of 450. Ten years later, Burke took a new position at Nevin Avenue Elementary School, where the student body was racially diverse. In doing so, she became one of the first African American principals of a racially integrated school. 

Later Years 

Before her retirement in 1955, Burke served as principal of four elementary schools in the Los Angeles City School District. She was highly respected and influential as a humanitarian, educator, and administrator. She also volunteered with many civic and community organizations that worked to advance the rights of people of color and women. These included the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association), NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), Native California Club, and Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Bessie Bruington Burke died in 1968. 

Honoring Burke’s Legacy 

In December 2023, Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles awarded six educators with the first “Bessie Bruington Burke Excellence in Black Teaching Award.”  The award is for educators who, like Burke, demonstrate expertise in teaching, a passion for social justice, and a deep commitment to their students. In 2024, a sign proclaiming “Bessie Burke Square” will be placed at the intersection of 51st Street and Holmes Avenue in Los Angeles—the location of Burke’s first teaching position.  

Dig Deeper Research to find out if any streets or parks or other landmarks in your city are named after famous African Americans. What made these people famous?