Millie Burgess paved the way for Black teachers.

For a while, she was the only one.

A Black teacher in Ontario, where even the immigrant children were mostly from European countries, Millie Burgess admitted that, at first, “It was a little scary.”

It wasn’t the students who were a problem. Burgess quickly adopted them as her own, often telling people she had twenty children. From Monday to Friday, during school hours, she treated the students as such and invested heavily in their education. Ironically, in many of the classes that Burgess taught over the years, there wasn’t a single Black student. 

“It didn’t seem to bother the kids…They responded to me just as if I was a regular teacher,” Burgess said.

Burgess and Her Problems With Parents

The same couldn’t be said about the parents — many of whom were uncomfortable with Ms. Burgess teaching their children.

When one parent complained to the principal that he didn’t want a black woman teaching his child, she didn’t bat an eye. Though Burgess had nothing to prove, she welcomed that parent into her classroom with open arms. She did the same for any parent who showed skepticism at the idea of a Black teacher.

They only had to see her in action.

“Well, they came into her classroom,” said Rosemary Sadlier, a friend of Burgess. “They watched her teach. And they encouraged her to stay for as long as she wanted.” And that was that.

How Burgess Paved the Way for Other Black Teachers

Talia Ricci/CBC

But what about Burgess’s initial fear? As Millie says, she “got over that.”

Her first teaching job was in Toronto in 1957. And back then — as Burgess recalled, “Toronto didn’t have that many Black people.” She found it disconcerting to be the only black person in her entourage, but she persevered.

Her teaching skill and dedication opened the doors for other Black teachers. Eventually, she would have Black teaching peers. For Burgess, it made a huge difference to not be “the only one.” 

Karen Brown, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, says that Burgess paved the way for more Black teachers to enter the profession over the years. She called Burgess’ decision to teach a “brave move.”

Millie Burgess in 1983 (Talia Ricci/CBC)

“Right now,” Brown said, “there continues to be an under-representation of Black educators.” She cites many things that need to be studied, such as hiring practices, teacher retention, and support. Brown says that recognizing pioneering Black educators like Burgess is important. After all, it could inspire more Black children and adults to consider careers in teaching.

Burgess is close to celebrating her 100th birthday. She looks back fondly on a long teaching career full of firsts, including being the first female teacher of African descent to teach in the Ontario school system.

She may also be the first Black woman to obtain a teaching degree in Canada. Millie Burgess has since inspired many others to become teachers, including some of her own siblings.

“Millie was kind of the leader for all of us,” said Cheryl Ann Darrell, Burgess’s niece. While Darrell is referring to their family members who became teachers, the same rings true for many black educators in Canada.

Millie Burgess is a leader for all.