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Bernice Burnett: Quiet, powerful force beside civil rights pioneer husband

Bernice Burnett, together with her husband of 70 years, Eugene Burnett Sr., pressed Long Island governments to desegregate schools and neighborhoods, while working to expand the region's African-American political representation.

On July 2, she died at St. Francis Hospital after suffering complications from cancer surgery. She was 90.

Burnett was the quiet, powerful force beside her civil rights pioneer husband, who gained notoriety after the couple were prevented from purchasing a home in Levittown because of their race.

The Burnetts eventually became the first African-American family in Wheatley Heights, helping grow the Central Long Island branch of the NAACP into a powerful political force and working to elect the Town of Babylon's first Black elected officials.

Eugene Burnett Jr. said his  mother's subtlety and measured wisdom were the perfect complement to his father, an outspoken proponent of social and racial injustice.

"To know my mother is to love her," said Burnett Jr., 66, an engineer from Atlanta. "She never had an unkind word to say to anybody. And she always left you better than she found you. She just had an uncanny way of helping you even if you didn't ask for help."

Bernice Burnett was born in Harlem, the only child to Cuthbert Garner, who had immigrated from Barbados, and Louise Meyers, from St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands; both were laundry workers.

Burnett was known as a studious student, never missing a day of class through her graduation from the former Central Commercial High School while training to become a stenographer. 

“She was very talented,” said her youngest daughter, Donna Swain, 63, a pharmacist from Chesterfield, Virginia. "She could have done anything. She wrote well. She was good at coordinating things. She was pragmatic.”

Burnett met her future husband when she was 12 and he was 13. The next time Eugene Sr. saw Bernice, he shouted “I know you!” Bernice replied: “Oh no you don’t,” and started running. He gave chase and eventually the couple began dating and fell in love.

In 1946, Burnett Sr. joined the Army while Bernice took a job as a stenographer at Con Edison. He returned home in 1949, took a job as a post office mail handler and saved for their wedding. They married in 1950.

"We were friends to the very end," Burnett Sr. said. "As you get older some couples just tolerate each other. But not us. We liked, loved and respected each other."

The couple decided to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and move to the new suburbs in Levittown, but encountered postwar housing segregation — the remnants of which still exist today.

They eventually bought a home in North Amityville and the couple raised three children: Eugene Jr., Karen Gittens, 64, and Swain.

The Burnetts became involved in the Central Long Island branch of the NAACP, helping grow its membership and stature. The branch would host events attended by first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court Justice, and singer Nina Simone. 

In 1960, the Burnetts moved to Wheatley Heights and Bernice worked as a clerk at the IRS office in Holbrook. She also served as a Democratic committeeperson in the Town of Babylon from 1989 to 2003; was president of her local chapter of Jack and Jill, which provides a social and cultural environment for African-American children,  and was treasurer of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Amityville Village.

Renee Joshua Porter, of Wheatley Heights, said Burnett served as her surrogate grandmother, mentoring her from high school and launching her career in the performing arts.

"Mrs. B, as I called her, was a tremendous wealth of wisdom and counsel and just a silent, quiet force of reason," she said. "Her words were not frivolous. So whenever she opened her mouth it was always something credible, something sound and something practical."

A dedicated mother, Burnett sewed her children's clothes and was known as a skilled cook, specializing in mac and cheese and smothered pork chops with sauerkraut.

“Anything you were interested in, she supported,” Gittens, a physician from Rockland County, said. “When we were in school, she became active in the PTA, and when we joined the Girl Scouts, she became a troop leader."

In addition to her three children, Burnett is survived by five grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, daughter-in-law Adrienne Burnett and son-in-law Rodney Gittens. 

Burnett was buried at Pinelawn Cemetery. A memorial service will be held at a later date. 

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