Black History Month at Trinity: The Story of Myrtle Burgess

Posted Feb 28, 2018 11:30 am

Throughout the month of February, students, faculty and staff across all three University of Toronto campuses honour the achievements of Black Canadians. Although the stories of students who attended Trinity, like Dr. Alexander Augusta, The Hon. Justice George Carter and Austin Clarke, are well documented, others have little or no information available. Myrtle Alberta Burgess is one of those students.

Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Myrtle Burgess (back row, second from left) attended Trinity from 1905 to 1909 and was a Special Arts student. The Burgess family was a well-known and accomplished one. In 1877, Myrtle’s father Albert Burgess had made history when he became St. Louis’ first Black lawyer. Education was important to their family and all three of Albert’s children travelled to Canada to attend Trinity College. Along with Myrtle, Elmer Burgess attended from 1907 to 1910 and Wilmot Burgess from 1905 to 1908. Of the three Burgesses, Wilmot was the only one to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts Degree.

What little we know of Myrtle Burgess’ time at Trinity College is contained in a single letter. Written on November 21, 1905, the letter is from Provost Thomas Macklem and is a response to a complaint he received from a disgruntled female student at Trinity's St. Hilda’s College. Although we do not have both sides of the correspondence, what can easily be inferred from Provost Macklem’s response is that this student was not happy Myrtle Burgess was attending Trinity College. The reason was the colour of Myrtle’s skin.

Reproduced below, is a portion of Provost Macklem’s response. Although an articulate and measured defence of Myrtle’s right to attend the College, it also offers an important glimpse into the discrimination people of colour faced in the early 20th century. A copy of the full letter remains in the Trinity College Archives:

I knew nothing of the colour of Miss Burgess until after I had accepted her as a resident student of St. Hilda’s College. I had admitted her on the strength of the best possible testimonials as to her character etc. from the Clergyman of the Parish, and the Bishop of the Diocese where she lives. […] Accordingly, we have now to deal with Miss Burgess, not as an applicant for admission to St. Hilda’s College, but as a student who has been admitted in regular course after due compliance with all the requirements.

Now, as I need hardly remind you, it is not consistent with the principles of British justice, or with the teachings of our Christian religion, to make any person suffer persecutions on account of his colour. Equal rights are by British law accorded to, and by the teachings of the Bible demanded for, all persons alike irrespective of colour. Miss Burgess having been admitted to residence in a country where the Union Jack waves as a symbol of these British rights, and in an institution – which exists for the exercise and inculcation of the principles and teachings of the Christian religion, is clearly entitled to claim exemption from any discrimination against herself on the grounds of colour. If she should prove herself in other respects unworthy of the privilege of residence in St. Hilda’s College, she will doubtless be required to leave the College, as others not of her colour have been required to do before her, and as others of whatsoever colour may be required to do in the future. But if the only charge is that she is coloured, it is not at all likely that she will be asked to leave. If any of her fellow Collegians do not wish to remain there with her they are at liberty to withdraw when they will. I venture to hope, however, that no member of the College will be so unmindful of the foundation on which it is erected, and of the obligations of the Christian religion which all of us profess, as to deny the truth of equality of all person."

As Black History Month comes to a close, it is important to continue to share these narratives not only to celebrate incredible achievements, but also to recognize the discrimination faced. It is a credit to Myrtle's intelligence, drive and tenacity that even in the face of injustice, she continued her studies at Trinity College.

More about Provost Thomas Macklem

Provost Macklem was born in Canada, and was educated at Upper Canada College, and St. John's College, Cambridge. He became Provost of Trinity in May 1900 at the age of 38. Under his leadership, federation with the University of Toronto was finally realized, as well as the plan to move the College to Queen's Park. He instituted and supervised all aspects in the building of the "new" Trinity College. He retired in 1921, after serving as Provost for 21 years.