Holding the Torch
Every year, rain or shine, Brenda Burt takes the stage on UT’s East Mall to welcome hundreds of community members at the time-honored MLK Day March and Rally. This is one of the many traditions that she vows to keep going strong for many years to come.
“Students at Huston-Tillotson and UT started the first march back in year 2000, and we’ve been doing it ever since,” says Burt, who has served as coordinator for the event for more than 20 years. “Once they graduated, we wanted to make sure this stayed alive, so community groups were formed to make sure it happens every year.”
When she steps up on the stage in front of the MLK statue, she often sees some of her former students in the crowd. Many of them, she says, helped make UT a more welcoming and inclusive place for future generations.
“These students were on it,” Burt says. “There was growth because the students and Dean Justice wanted to make a change and leave their mark on the university.”
One big improvement, she says, was the creation of the Multicultural Information Center (MIC) in 1988, which has since flourished into the Multicultural Engagement Center. This big achievement, she notes, was made possible by student advocates—including the first Black leaders of UT Student Government—and Sharon Justice, the former dean of students.
“It has never been a dull moment working with these students,” Burt says. “In the MIC, they could all come together and learn from each other and share their experiences. It was—and still is—a place where everybody could come in, relax and feel understood. I remember students would say, “We all on stage until we come in here.’ Walk back outside and it’s lights, camera, action.”
Burt knows all too well what it’s like to practice and rehearse before taking the stage. Like a drama student practicing her lines before the big show, she would stand before a mirror and practice reading out loud.
“I remember my fifth-grade teacher told me to practice this at home, so I knew how I looked and sounded when reading in class,” Burt says. “That lesson was so valuable to me. It helped me present myself better in the world with confidence.”
Burt also recalls shopping at second-hand stores with her mother, where they would pick out clothes that helped her blend in with her fellow classmates at her integrated school in Richmond, Virginia.
“She told me to take a good look at what the white girls were wearing so we could pick out similar outfits to help me look the part.”
Inspired by her supportive mother and teachers, Burt felt the need to continue on their wisdom and kindness. When her husband landed a job in Austin, she found her way to UT, where she began her career in the financial aid office in 1987.
“I took the things that were handed to me and gave them to my students,” Burt says.
Burt is especially inspired by Almetris Duren (aka “Mama Duren”), a beloved African American figure in UT history who served her students for many years as a housemother and adviser. During her retirement, she came back to campus for an awards banquet and paid Burt a quick visit.
“I was in awe because I heard so much about her,” Burt says. “As she was leaving, she said, ‘Oh, by the way, see this box right here? I’m not taking this to California with me, I’m giving this to you so you can ensure the students get to read these.’ At that moment, I felt that the torch was really being passed.”
True to her word, Burt put the box of reading materials to good use in the MIC, where she created a lending library. She also kept Duren’s legacy alive by incorporating her book, “Overcoming: A History of Black Integration at the University of Texas at Austin” into her Black studies course.
“I utilized ‘Overcoming’ in my class because I wanted my students, particularly my Black students, to get to know her though her book,” Burt says. “I thought it was very important for them to know who she was and how she helped her students.”
Listen to Brenda Burt narrate a passage from Almetris Duren’s book “Overcoming.” The audiobook is free to download on this site.
“Dr. Warfield was someone who touched all of us,” Burt says. “I used to call him the ‘Pied Piper’ because when he was walking around campus, people would often join his group as he shared his knowledge.”
In addition to the longstanding Warfield Center for African and African Diaspora Studies (established in 1969), the university has added several more ethnic studies departments and centers during Burt’s time on campus. This growth, she says, shows great promise for the future.
“Just look across the administration and you’ll see representation in more ethnic groups in leadership positions,” Burt says. “And there are many more ethnic studies classes, departments and centers, giving people more opportunities to learn about other groups than they ever did in the past.”
Much has changed, she notes, since she directed the MIC during a time when very few African Americans served in leadership roles at the university. This became very apparent when she joined a predominately white working group of unit leaders.
Although being the only Black person in the meeting room can be unsettling, Burt looks at these moments as learning experiences.
“It was a great experience for me and for them,” Burt says. “If you’ve never been around someone who’s not like you, you’re not going to learn very much about the world. Once I shared about myself and presented my unit, they were all very receptive. I just needed to speak up and speak the ‘King’s English’ as well.”
Looking back at her career—and the different roles she has served over the years—Burt is proud of her accomplishments and knows without a doubt that she found her calling.
“Every role was a steppingstone,” Burt says. “Dean Justice allowed me to use my leadership skills to build continuity among students of color—and I have cherished every last minute of my time here at UT.”