The father-son team of Ira Burton and Leroy Burton have become our next subjects for an article for the museums to share. These two gentlemen were persons we might all strive to emulate in our lives. In researching this article, not one person has uttered a single negative thing about either of these two men. The core of information on the father, Ira Burton, comes from a “The Burton Family History” in our collection and our History of Fuquay-Varina. This has been supplemented by written and oral interviews from the past and present on both men.
Mr. Ira was eulogized in an Independent column, “This Side of Fuquay,” by Bill Freeman which was entitled “The Late Ira Burton Loved Everybody.” Dr. Freeman declared “He was unusual in many ways.” Among them “He loved all people. Many times on Sunday, he would stand up in his and other churches to say, ‘Mr. Pastor, I want to say to our young folks that you have got to love everybody; you can’t go through this world hating.’ “ Freeman testifies, “This man went through out the community urging the old and young to work for harmony between the races.”
Richard and Julia Burton of Granville County, NC. gave birth to seven children, 6 sons and 1 daughter. The eldest, Ira, was born October 16, 1878. At age seventeen, he began working on the railroad from North Carolina to Petersburg, Va. and later worked in West Virginia and New Jersey for a wage of $1.00 per day. When his parents became ill in 1898, he left his job in New Jersey to return to Granville County. Upon the death of his father, he assumed responsibility for his mother and the younger children.
At age 22, Ira married Roberta Smith in Granville County. Upon the death of his mother in 1909, the Burtons moved to Willow Springs, North Carolina where they worked a farm on shares. In 1912, the young couple purchased a small farm along with a first horse and wagon. Bad economic times, caused them to have to return to share cropping; however, they were not to be deterred. In 1918, they purchased the Burton farm on the edge of Wake-Harnett County which became the Burton home place and the site of the Burton Family Cemetery. The house was donated for a fire department burn by grandson, Calvin King, a few years ago. Ezola, who cared for her father and mother in their latter years, was the last family resident on the property.
To the union of Ira and Roberta were born thirteen children, 7 sons and 6 daughters. Listed in the family history were Magazine, Nathaniel, William, Olivia, Ezola, Ira James, twins Leroy and Lela Everlyn, Eugene, Euzelia, Algernon, John, and Ruby. The first to be buried in the family cemetery was twin, Lela Everlyn who died at 7 years of age. When daughter Euzelia, a beautician in Fuquay living at home with her young son, died circa 1942, her son Calvin King was raised by his grandparents. He was graduated from Fuquay Consolidated High School in 1960 and pursued a military career.
Now living in Durham, Calvin has assumed responsibility for the cemetery for the family and gave us permission to make photographs there. The youngest child, Ruby, shared her memory that the only non-Burton family body laid to rest there is that of John White who worked with the Snipes neighbors. Mr. Ira honored Otha Snipes’ request to bury White there. Rosalyn Snipes remembers that White worked with the Snipes on the farm adjoining Burton. Since he had no family to care for him, Mr. Ira helped with his burial.
Freeman characterized Burton as “unusual in another respect, his belief in education and religion.” Ira Burton was one of the leaders in the First Baptist Church in Fuquay-Varina. He along with his wife, Roberta, were life-long members. The Burtons were active in the Masons and Eastern Star. He was instrumental in getting the first nursery for blacks at the Masonic Hall where Ruby remembered the children called him “grandpa.” The first Rosenwald school building for blacks on Jones Street was another effort on which he worked. His older children had attended the Bazzel Creek School. With Fuquay an elementary school only, Burton helped in a community effort to purchase the bus to transport high school students to Berry O’Kelly High School until the local high school could be established circa 1938.
In a phone interview from Philadelphia, Ruby, now 94 years old, remembered that Mr. Ira always worked for the school, was active in the PTA, the 4 H-club program, and the farmer’s association. Farming, building, and community efforts were significant within the Burton family. Miss Roberta was said to have loved her home and family, and enjoyed flowers, gardening, cooking, quilting, and missionary work.
Ruby characterized her father as strict and her mother as sweet and loving. The parents instilled a sense of hard work, independence, self sufficiency, and reliability in all the Burton children. She remembers a neighborhood of white Snipes and Rawls landowners and Snead and Burton black landowners all living in their congenial rural community.
In 1960, Roberta died at age 74; however, another of Ira’s “unusual” characteristics noted by Freeman was his longevity. On September 1, 1979, Freeman recounted that “more than 500 mourners filed by the bier in the First Baptist Church to pay their respects to the 101 year old.” Both husband and wife were interned in the family cemetery.
Ira’s son, Leroy Melvin Burton, one of the twins, was born on September 28, 1913 in Fuquay Springs. He attended school in the area and was one of the bus drivers for the high school students who were transported to Berry O’Kelly. When interviewed for our Ballentine School House displays, he told us that, as a student, he drove the bus from Fuquay to the famed high school for African Americans located in the Method Community.
Graduating from Berry O’Kelly were Olivia (who attended as a boarding student), Leroy, and Ezola. Euzelia came back to graduate in the first class at Fuquay Consolidated High School. All the younger siblings were educated in Fuquay, Ruby recalled.
Leroy’s life on the farm, led him to study agriculture. He graduated from A T & T in Greensboro, and became a vocational agriculture teacher. In 1940, he was boarding and teaching in Wilkesboro, North Carolina where he registered for the draft during World War II. There Leroy met pretty young teacher Jo Evelyn Hamm from Statesville and they were married while teaching in Alleghany County, N. C.
Calvin fondly recalls visits to Uncle Leroy in the mountains. He also knows that the family purchased black angus cows from that area. No one is definite about when Leroy and Jo Evelyn moved to Bridge Street in Fuquay. However, Ruby remembers that daughter Joan was born in Fuquay Springs. Her guess would be they moved in the early 1950’s.
At any rate, the Leroy Burtons did return to live in his home town for the rest of their lives. Both are pictured on the staff in the 1953 Yearbook, L’Esprit de Corps, in the museum’s collection. They may have been working there for several years prior to that yearbook. Mrs. Burton taught the third grade at Fuquay Consolidated and Mr. Burton became the vocational agriculture teacher in the high school. Dr. Freeman noted in his column that he “became a fledgling assistant agriculture teacher under Leroy Burton in 1954 at Fuquay Consolidated High School.” Mr. Ira gave him this advice which Freeman shared in that column. “Young man, we have some good folks here, white and black. We have a good community, and we welcome you here. If you come here and get the folks to love you, and do a good job, they will help you to do anything you want done.”
Leroy and Jo Evelyn raised three children who also graduated from Fuquay Consolidated High School. Leroy Melvin, Jr. and William Edward were both born in Statesville, Iredell County where Jo Evelyn had been living. The elder, Leroy Melvin Burton, Jr., became an established medical doctor in Raleigh, North Carolina and is listed in Who’s Who Among African Americans multiple times in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Dr. Burton died in 1994 and is buried at the Burton Family Cemetery. His younger brother, William had died at age 44 years and been buried in the same cemetery in 1987. Ruby tells us that William finished ROTC and served in the military during the Bay of Pigs. Leroy and Jo Evelyn are survived by four grandchildren. Calvin says Dr. Burton’s two daughters are both in the medical profession in Nashville. William’s son is an engineer with Caterpillar in Rocky Mount and his daughter lives in Angier.
In 1970, when the schools of Fuquay-Varina were integrated, Leroy moved to Fuquay-Varina High School to work with Jerry Holland in the vocational agriculture program. Mr. Leroy, very popular with students and staff, was especially noted for his kindness, wise counsel, and ability to work with everyone. The Holland family reminded us that on the weekends, Mr. Burton was the local magistrate and during the week the soft-spoken teacher. Mrs. Jo Evelyn Burton was remembered by fellow teachers in the Lincoln Heights Primary grades after integration.
When the Bengal Blvd. high school building opened, one agriculture position remained at the Fuquay-Varina Junior High and one moved with grades 10-12. Mr. Holland went to the high school and Mr. Burton taught the 9th grade, until that grade moved to the high school in the fall of 1977. About that time he is assumed, by teacher Micheal Bowden, to have retired.
Following in the footsteps of his father, Leroy worked for community progress. He was one of the co-founders of the Pine Acres Community Center in 1962. The building has served as a banquet hall, family reunion site, social center, after-school tutorial program. education center, polling place, and today a site for Meals on Wheels. It remains the heart of the African American Community as the founding fathers envisioned.
When Jo Evelyn Burton died and was buried in the family cemetery in July 1998, daughter Joan moved back home to live with her father. Leaving her career in Atlanta, she was chosen the Executive Director of the Fuquay-Varina Community Development Corporation. Under her direction the two buildings from the Fuquay Consolidated High School were preserved and repurposed, one into a childhood learning center and the other into apartments for the elderly. Plans to save the separate gymnasium were made but the project was thwarted by storm damages to the building. Like her father and grandfather, Joan’s leadership within the community is legendary.
Mr. Leroy enjoyed his retirement on Burton Street, where he had built a home and encouraged his neighbor, Mr. Freeman, to build as well. He was buried in 2002 in the Burton Family Cemetery. Joan returned to other work thereafter. Sadly she was taken from us by illness just this year, 2020.
Other grandchildren of the Ira Burton’s reside in the area. Ruby, the only living child, married in 1947. After a few years at Camp Lejeune, they farmed in Buckhorn. She followed her husband to Philadelphia in 1957 where she and her children remain. Calvin and Ruby were gracious in sharing their memories and promised pictures of this remarkable family.
Freeman concluded his column by saying of Mr. Ira, “Fuquay is better because he passed this way.” Those of us who worked with Mr. Leroy enthusiastically say the same of the son as well. Definitely as one family member said , “We are good folks.” Our research endorses these evaluations 110%. Thank you “Burtons” for being part of our community!
Sources: phone interviews with Ruby Burton Bullock, Calvin King, Nancy Holland, Donald Cotton, Michael Bowden, Rosalyn Snipes
printed History of Fuquay-Varina, Burton Family History, “This Side of Fuquay” by Bill Freeman, The Independent, U. S. Census, Find a Grave, & other data.
Shirley Simmons, Volunteer Director