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Charles Eaton Burch, PhD
(July 14, 1891-March 23, 1948)
University professor, literary scholar

Photo Courtesy of English Department, Howard University

Charles Eaton Burch rose to the heights of academia in the US as a professor and an internationally recognised authority on the life and works of English novelist Daniel Defoe. At Howard University in Washington, DC, where he was chair of the English department for 15 years, he promoted works by African-American writers. The course he created on black poetry made Howard one of the first universities in the US to have a course about black literature. .

He is featured in several biographical publications and websites, including Harlem Renaissance Lives from the African American National Biography, which said he “ranks high as a scholar and a specialist of eighteenth-century literature”.

Although he has been deceased for seven decades, he is remembered annually at Howard University’s English Department, which established the Charles Eaton Burch Memorial Lecture a year after his death.


It is not surprising that few Bermudians are aware of his accomplishments. He left Bermuda as a teenager to further his studies and never lived on the Island as an adult.

Yet he retained his ties to Bermuda, speaking to church and school groups during visits back home. Just eight months before his death, he spent five weeks on the Island and he and his wife, Dr. Willa Carter Mayor Burch, also an educator, gave a talk on education at Berkeley. While he has no direct descendants, his family ties are extensive. Besides the Burch clan, they include the Nearon, Trott and Reid families.

Born into a high-achieving St. George’s family, Burch was the son of Charles and Helena (Nearon) Burch. According to the website encyclopaedia.com, he was “greatly influenced by his father’s passion for seventeenth and eighteenth-century literature”. It added that his father, a woodworker and entrepreneur, “played a significant role in helping him reach his goal”.

Four of the five Burch sons pursued careers in the professions. Egbert and Collingwood were pharmacists. Collingwood was also a Member of Parliament. Philip became a physician and served in the US Army during World War I, but his career was cut short by mental illness and he would spend the rest of his life at St. Brendan’s Hospital.  The eldest, Carlyle, was a carpenter like his father, and a musician.  A maternal uncle, Dr. Leo Fitz Nearon, became a respected New York physician.

Burch attended St David’s elementary school and The Berkeley Institute. The family was initially Anglican, but later joined the AME church. At age 15, Burch left Bermuda to attend Wilberforce College, in Ohio, a preparatory school attached to Wilberforce University, an historically black university affiliated with the AME church. He moved on to Wilberforce University, where he obtained a BA in 1914. In 1918, he graduated from New York’s Columbia University with an MA.

His master’s thesis at Columbia was entitled “A Survey of the Life and Poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar”. Dunbar was one of the first blacks to receive national recognition in the US as a poet. According to encyclopedia.com, Burch was introduced to the works of Defoe at Columbia, and his interest in Defoe overshadowed his interest in poetry.

Burch taught at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama from 1916-1917 and at Wilberforce University from 1918-1921.  In 1921, he joined Howard’s English Department. He moved up the ranks, becoming chairman in 1933, the same year he received a PhD from Ohio State University. His doctoral dissertation was “The English Reputation of Daniel Defoe”.  While at Howard he took a sabbatical from 1927 to 1928 to study the works of Defoe at Edinburgh University, in Scotland, returning in 1938 to conduct additional research.

He made several contributions to Howard during his tenure. Besides the introduction of the course “Poetry and Prose of Negro Life”, he sought to strengthen the department by recruiting prominent scholars and outlining plans to introduce graduate level work.

According to encyclopaedia.com: “Some departmental guidelines and precedents set by Burch continued to be used in the English department for thirty years after his death.”


Burch wrote numerous papers about Defoe that were published in academic journals in the United States, England and German. His publications were said to have been widely known and influential.  He was working on a biography of Defoe at the time of his death. He travelled by train to Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut to conduct final research. On the return trip to his home in Silver Springs, Maryland, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was 56.

Burch, who had an early first marriage, was survived by his second wife Dr. Willa Burch, who he married in 1918, his mother and three brothers. The couple had no children.

His funeral service was held at Howard’s Rankin Memorial Chapel. Howard’s president Dr. Mordecai Johnson delivered the eulogy. His brother Collingwood travelled from Bermuda to attend the funeral. Burial was in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland, Maryland.

Burch’s obituaries ran in the Washington Post, the Washington Star and The Royal Gazette.

The memorial lecture, featuring talks by distinguished scholars, was established the following year. A statement written by Howard’s Department of English for the inaugural lecture held on March 25, 1949 noted his talents as a scholar and “a great teacher”, but also his zest for life. “He seemed sometimes to have come out of the coffee houses of eighteenth century London, with his connoisseurship of good things, his love of good talk.”

The “best” students found him to be “inspiring”, the “slower” ones found him to be “encouraging”. He took a special interest in his fellow islanders. “Coming from Bermuda, he was widely known for his counselling of students from his home and from the British West Indies.”

The statement also said: “It is significant that the last thing that Charles Eaton Burch was seen doing before he keeled over in death was jotting down notes on a sheet of paper. The people who discovered that he was dead found a pen in his hand.”

That Burch continues to be recognised at Howard and in international biographical publications is a tribute to his legacy as an educator and scholar. His sudden and premature death was a major loss.

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July 14, 1891—Born in St. George’s to Charles and Helen Burch

1906—Leaves Bermuda to attend prep school

1914—Receives BA from Wilberforce University

1916-1917—Teaches at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama

1918—Receives MA from Columbia University; marries Willa Carter Mayer

1918-1921—Teaches at Wilberforce University

1921—Joins Howard’s faculty as assistant professor

1924—Becomes associate professor at Howard

1927-1928—Takes a sabbatical to study the life and works of Daniel Defoe at Edinburgh University

1933—Receives PhD from Columbia University; becomes chairman of Howard’s English Department

1934—Gives a talk at Allen Temple AME Church in Somerset

1938—Returns to Scotland to do additional research on Defoe

1947—Vacations in Bermuda for five weeks; he and wife Willa give a talk on education at Berkeley

March 23, 1948—Dies on a train in the US of a heart attack

March 25, 1949—Inaugural Charles Eaton Burch Memorial lecture held

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Programme from the inaugural Charles Eaton Burch Memorial Lectures at Howard University in 1949.

Programme courtesy Dawn Simmons



Further Reading

Church Activities, Bermuda Recorder, August 25, 1934.” Correction, September 1, 1934

“Noted Lecturer at Somerset,” The Royal Gazette, August 11,1934.

“Dr. Leo Fitz Nearon Passes”, Bermuda Recorder, March 18, 1936

Notice of education lecture by Charles Burch and Willa Burch, The Royal Gazette, August 16, 1947

Charles Eaton Burch obit, The Royal Gazette, March 27, 1948.

Africana—The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr, Editors

Charles Eaton Burch bios can be found at encyclopedia.com, Harlem Renaissance Lives From the African American National Biographyand the Oxford African American Studies Center.

Additional Source:

Burch Family Papers: Courtesy of Dawn Simmons

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