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Thelma D. Burns

Thelma D. Burns was a parent at the Christopher Gibson Elementary School in Dorchester in 1965 when a young teacher named Jonathan Kozol was fired for reading Langston Hughes poetry to his 4th graders. With other parents, she protested the firing and boycotted the school. Kozol wrote the book Death at an Early Age about the experience, winning the 1968 National Book Award. He and Burns remained lifelong friends.

A firm believer in the importance of education, Burns earned a bachelor of science degree in education from Boston University and a master of education degree from Harvard University. She served as METCO director for the Belmont Public Schools for 28 years. An educator, community activist, advocate, and volunteer, she was always at the forefront of social justice initiatives. She chaired or served on a number of other community boards including Central Boston Elder Services, the Mayor’s Senior Advisory Council, and the Roxbury YMCA.

She was the recipient of a Robert F. Kennedy Fellowship and was twice named an ABCD community hero. In 2022, the Kraft Family and the New England Patriots Foundation named her the Myra Kraft Community MVP Awards grand prize winner.

Burns was an active ABCD board member for more than 35 years, serving as the chair and as a long-time executive committee member. Representing the Dorchester neighborhood, she served in various capacities through the years including as the leader of the ABCD Dorchester Neighborhood Service Center advisory board. In 2016, ABCD honored her extensive contributions to the Boston community by renovating and naming a stunning building for her.

A two-time cancer survivor, Burns was a fierce advocate for health equity and dedicated a great deal of time and energy to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the faith-based Cancer Disparities Network.

The Thelma D. Burns building, located at 575 Warren Street in Roxbury, was built in 1927 as the Beth Hamadrath Aperion Plaza and functioned as a synagogue, kosher caterer and social center for the Jewish community. In 1968 it became the Skycap Plaza nightclub, and in 2001, Charles Street AME church bought the property. Today, it is a vibrant community space as well as the home of ABCD’s University High School.

Burns’s many accomplishments have enriched the ABCD community and beyond, and her generous. spirit and moral leadership leave an enduring legacy. Read more about Thelma D. Burns in this Boston Globe tribute and at

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