August 24th in African American History – John Melville Burgess

John Melville BurgessAugust 24, 2003 John Melville Burgess, the first African American diocesan bishop in the Episcopal Church, died.

Burgess was born March 11, 1909 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He earned his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees in social work from the University Michigan in 1930 and 1931, respectively. He earned a divinity degree from Episcopal Theological School in 1934. Burgess was ordained to the priesthood in 1935 and later put in charge of a church outside Cincinnati that he described as “the poorest of the poor.” There he administered a social service center, medical clinic, and a day school in an effort to make the church a place that ministered to the whole person.

From 1946 to 1956, Burgess served as the first denominational chaplain at Howard University and from 1951 to 1956 he served at the Washington National Cathedral where he used the national pulpit to heighten the social conscience of the Episcopal Church. In 1962, Burgess was elected an assistant bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts and in 1970 he was installed as the diocese’s bishop, making him the first African American to head a diocese.

After retiring in 1975, Burgess taught at Yale University’s Berkeley Divinity School and served as board chairman at St. Augustine’s College. Burgess received honorary degrees from several colleges and universities, including the University of Michigan.

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