The usual adage, “like father, like son” is a familiar one; however, in this instance, there is also a daughter who has in amazing ways walked in the footsteps of her father. We honor the philosophy and lives of both Romie Burt, Sr. for his outstanding life and his youngest daughter, Orlean Burt Newton who is following in his footsteps working on our Friends of the Museums Board these past 10 years and making other contributions to life in Fuquay-Varina.
Romie Burt, Sr. was born in the Holly Springs-Duncan area of Wake County on May 7, 1903. According to the census and his obituary he was the oldest child of Rosa Burt and James Dennis. He lived his entire life in the area, generally in Fuquay Springs. In an interview on his 99th birthday with the Independent, May 8, 2002, Burt stated, “ I’ve never been to South Carolina or Virginia. I’ve never been out of the state of North Carolina and I’ve never taken a vacation.”
As the oldest of 9 siblings, Romie worked from childhood to help his mother support the family. Schools of his era were never more than 6 months but the family is unsure just how many years he completed in school. Because of his role in the family support he told the reporter for the Independent on his 100th birthday, “I only got to go to school about 30 days out of the year.” Whatever years he attended were at the Bazzel Creek School located near the church on Wilbon Road.
Romie could best be described as self educated, reading the paper daily according to his daughter, Etta. She remembers that he always made sure his children had something to read, including the newspaper and subscriptions to Life and Time magazines among others. He provided a set of encyclopedia and a dictionary for the home, insisting that the children utilize them. Orlean recalled her father provided the girls with her own typewriter for school work which later accompanied them to college.
The 1920 census taker listed Romie as a farm laborer at 16 years of age. Briefly he worked at Butner, NC during the construction of the camp. Now married with family, Burt was listed as working in a service station in the 1930 U. S. census.
Portia Mitchell Newman recalled that her father purchased the garage of Henry Sessoms on Main Street in 1934. According to Mr. Mitchell, Romie was employed by Sessoms when the business sale was being finalized. In the discussion, Burt indicated he would like to continue this employment. Mitchell hired him on the spot for as long as he wanted to work.
Curtis Holleman, whose uncle was a mechanic there, remembers Burt as an employee at Mitchell Chevrolet. Holleman recalled Romie’ s characteristic cap and coveralls.
At 100 years, Burt himself described his job to the Independent. “ I was a first aid man. I changed the oil and helped the customers.” Many citizens remember the gentleman with whom they preferred to leave their vehicles for service. Later as proprietors of the drug store, Curtis and Kitty often enjoyed visits to chat with the elder Burt in his home.
Romie was a valued employee of Mitchell Chevrolet for the remainder of Mitchell’s life. When the company was sold in 1987, it appears that Romie remained with the Mitchener Chevrolet Company for three more years, finally retiring at age 87.
Portia emphasized that her dad trusted Romie more than anyone in the world outside his family. When young Portia walked from the Fuquay Springs School on Ennis and Academy to the Chevrolet building, Romie was sometimes dispatched with a car to drive her home. She describes Burt as a “perfect gentleman” and a “strict father” himself. Her recollection is that Burt’s own children would come into the shop and wait to catch his attention when they needed their dad. Both Mitchell and Burt worked from daylight to dark. Both were frugal and taught their children to be respectful, Portia emphasized.
Wallace Mitchell is quoted in the History of Fuquay Varina as remembering, “He and my father started working together when I was three months old, and he has been a part of my life all of my life. I admire this man so much.”
Burt walked to work every day except Friday, when he drove his car so that Miss Golia could do grocery shopping at the Food Center. When Golia completed her purchases next door, Romie could then drive her home with the groceries. Each Sunday when there were services, he drove his family to Bazzel Creek Baptist Church. Etta enthused affectionately about her dad’s ’34 Chevrolet, painted pea green with yellow behind the spokes.
He was a faithful member of his church, which he described as beginning under a brush arbor made of trees covered by sheep skins to keep our the rain. Bazzel Creek Baptist Church was founded by ex-slaves from Piney Grove Baptist Church in 1866. No one was sure when he joined the church but indications are this was from very early in his life as he was recognized for many years as the oldest member. In his later years for attendance ease, his membership was moved to First Baptist Church on North West Street where Golia had originally been a member. His membership remained with the latter congregation upon his death at age 103.
Rev. Dr. Lorenzo Lynch came as minister to Bazzel Creek Church while a seminary student at Shaw University. He recalls that he, “a 19 or 20 year old, received valuable counsel from Burt.” Romie served as Chairman of Deacons, Church Treasurer and Sunday School teacher. After Lynch married, Burt insisted that the minister and his wife always take Sunday dinner with them following the once-a-month worship. Theirs was a life-long friendship.
Faith was an integral part of Burt’s life. He attributed his longevity to “hard work and clean living and in believing and trusting in the Father, The Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
Romie married Madelene Chisholm on February 11, 1923. By the 1930 census the Burt family was residing in Fuquay Springs, listing three children: Dennis C., Dazell,
and Walter G.
On April 6, 1936, Romie married a second time. The second Mrs. Burt was Golia Thorpe of Harnett County. Romie and Golia owned their home on Railroad Street in Fuquay Springs. Living with the couple in 1940 were Dazell and their two-year old daughter, Etta Geneva. Two additional children were born to this union, Orlean Rose and Romie Burt, Jr.
An active member of the Golden Star Lodge # 150, PHA, Romie Burt was an avid proponent for his community, always looking out for the specific needs of his people. Our belief is that his Cafe on Railroad Street was the town’s first black owned business. Uniquely, the building did not originate as a cafe. Burt built it for an office and brought the first African-American physician, Dr. J. B. Davis, to serve the town. Orlean recalls that both she and Romie, Jr, were delivered by Dr. Davis. Etta recalled Miss Jessie, the nurse, who gave shots. This doctor vacated the building when he moved into his own house and office in the triangle across from First Baptist Church.
The building then was converted to a Cafe run by Golia and son, Dennis, assisted by Annie Raines. In segregated days, this cafe was needed to provide and serve lunches and dinners to black workers from the North State Tobacco redrying plant across the street. Our best research has the cafe opening certainly after 1943, perhaps about 1945-46. Etta remembers sitting in the window as a fourth grader, to observe what was happening at the cafe.
The cafe also opened on Sunday afternoons, providing a place for African American youth to gather. Hotdogs, hamburgers, sodas, and ice cream were featured; supervision by the older Burt couple was a definite. Etta also recalled her parents always brought Bazooka Bubble Gum home as a treat on Sunday nights. Orlean believes they closed the cafe when other black businesses were established in the town; however, the exact date eludes history.
Once when Principal D. A. Thomas decided that students could not use the gymnasium for their senior prom, Romie Burt allowed the class to hold the event in his cafe. Mildred Scott Lucas’s class was involved in that occasion, she recalled to Orlean.
This building remains today and has been suggested as an addition to the museums. North Carolina Preservation specialists note that the frame building is unique, unusually well preserved, and significant as a black-owned business. They recommended saving the structure in a consultation with the Friends of the Museums. Moving the cafe to Ashworth Park is supported as one of the future Strategic Goals of the Friends of the Museums.
Burt facilitated a building next door to the cafe in which at least two Raleigh funeral homes, Lightner and Haywood, briefly operated satellite offices. Burt assisted their operation by selling insurance policies. This tiny structure was known last as “the Lamb’s Corner” and has been demolished. This operation was shortlived. Owen Scott owned a building on W. Academy St. in which Mims and Trice would open the first locally owned African American funeral home.
Property owner, respected leader and esteemed businessman are all descriptive of Burt. His fairness and consideration in pricing rental property set an example for the entire community. Holleman describes Burt as “wealthy but never boastful.” According to Rev. Dr. Lynch, Burt “contributed more than most members” to his church. He “kept complete reports and was always up front and above board with the treasurer’s books.” Lynch noted that Burt invested in real estate and owed nobody. At his death, Lynch believed him to be a millionaire.
Talking to the Independent on the occasion of his 95th birthday, Burt remembered when land could be purchased for one cent per acre. He told of purchasing 10 acres in Fuquay on which he grew tobacco from a black family who wanted to move north. Orlean believes this to be the only time he took out a loan from Robert Prince, his friend at the Bank of Fuquay.
Among his investments were farm land in the Holly Springs, Apex, and Harnett County areas and multiple rental properties. When building his own new brick home on Railroad Street beside his older residence, he hired all the contractors, paid the bills each week, and finished with no mortgage or debt. He testified to learning the importance of land as a good investment from Mrs. Emma Stinson who was left with only land after the Civil War (Independent, 1998).
Helping his community was especially noteworthy when the Fuquay-Varina Community Development Corporation purchased the old Fuquay-Varina Consolidated School property
from Wake County Schools planning to transform the buildings into apartments for the elderly and a day care center. The lawyers and school board were surprised to find that some of the school had actually been constructed on Burt’s property. Burt declined to contest the matter, saying that his children had all been educated in that school. Instead he donated the acreage, which had been appropriated by the county for the school, to the corporation. (Independent 1998) “I was raised that money wasn’t everything. Friends in the community who work together will always prosper,” he believed. Romie, Jr. recalls that his father gave not only this land but also contributed land to the town for the widening of Railroad Street for two way traffic and for the extension of North West Street. At some point this was authenticated by the Town of Fuquay.
His gardening skills providing produce shared with neighbors and friends is legendary. All three of his children noted this as a special memory of their dad’s philosophy of life. Rev. Lynch commented that Burt worked two jobs. After a day at Mitchell’s Chevrolet he came home at 5:00 only to go directly to his farming. Etta noted that her father always had enough food to help people. He let them come to his garden and he delivered food and coal to many of the elderly.
Golia was a wonderful cook according to her daughter Etta. Her table was always open to any visitor with her husband insisting, “Sit down and eat.” Miss Golia was an accomplished seamstress, making all the girls’ clothes. She also sewed for the neighborhood. Golia did all her three daughters’ hair. Orlean declared her mother the “most talented woman she ever knew.”
The era in which the Burt children grew up was a segregated one. School, church, and community were essentially separate lives with only minimal overlapping of the racial
divide in their early lives. However, their father’s philosophy of life is evident in their lives and the inspiration he instilled is manifested in their accomplishments.
His first three children called Golia mother. Each of them admired mother Golia and appreciated the father who provided for and guided them to become good citizens.
Dennis, the eldest, helped Golia in the cafe. He married Yvonne McClain and raised six children: Willis C. (deceased), Willa Jean, Alvenus, Wade, Dennis A., and Aaron, all of whom live in the area. He generally worked in construction, finishing cement. He died in 1968. Dazell moved to New York where she worked as a supervisor with Angelica Health Care most of her life. She returned to the area after retirement. Orlean became her caregiver until her death in 2019. Walter also lived part of his life in the D. C. area before he returned to a career as a maitre d’ in hotels in Raleigh. Orlean recalls him as an impressive gentleman. His death came in 2000.
The importance of education was paramount in their childhood as the living three children remember. Orlean quotes her father’s belief on getting an education, “Boys need it but girls must have it. What you have in your head nobody can take away from you.” The three younger children all chose college with their father paying for what scholarships did not cover.
Etta Geneva Chesley is retired and lives in Temple Hills, Maryland today. She graduated from the Fuquay Consolidated School and Shaw University in Raleigh. She remembered that Mr. Mac Mitchell gave each of the Burt children a silver dollar every Christmas. She proudly saved her 17 coins for her college fund. Her teaching career as a reading specialist in DC covered 41 years and 9 months. From her father, she carried forth to “work with those who were struggling” and declared in her interview that all children are “special.” Her four children from her first husband are Nathaniel Clayton McNair III, Natalyn Maryetta (deceased), Natasha Claytonia McNair Shannon, and Na’etta Jenene McNair. They all reside in the DC area today.
John Romie, Jr. graduated from Fuquay Consolidated School and chose to further his education at Harris Barber College. Spending many years in the DC area, he also completed some course work at the university in D.C. His career was spent supervising beauty and barber shops associated with the U.S. Army, U.S. Marine Corps, and the U. S. Air Force. He worked in management with Giant Foods as one of five black managers. He retired and returned to Fuquay-Varina circa 1999. He is the father of nine: Chantel, Tonya, Richard Myles, Ronda Denise, Floyd Antonio, Valencia, Romel, Monique Alecia (deceased) and Mekiya.
Romie, Jr. has followed in the steps of his father by identifying and working to fill needs of his people. He served as the first Chairman of the Cultural Arts Society of Fuquay-Varina . He and Mayor John Byrne are credited with implementing the idea in 2003 and leading the town to organize the first Martin Luther King Celebration in 2004.
2020 Telephone interviews by Shirley Simmons with: Etta Burt McNair Chesley, Orlean Burt Newton, John Romie Burt, Jr. Rev. Dr. Lorenzo A. Lynch, Curtis Holleman and Portia Mitchell Newman. History of Fuquay-Varina, 2009, The Independent: June 3, 1998; May 8, 2002; May 7, 2003; and May 19, 2004. “Celebrating the Life and Love of Romie Burt, Sr,” December 30, 2006. Pictures from museum events and Burt family donation to the collection.