Paul Quinn College
Historically Black College

 

 

REV. ISAAC M. BURGAN, B. D.

President Paul Quinn College—Educator—Pioneer.

ISAAC M. BURGAN was born October 6, 1848, near Marion, McDowell county, North Carolina. His mother, Sylva Burgan, was one of those devoted slave mothers who allowed nothing to prevent her caring for her boy. Many times when unable to stay with him at the house, she would lead him by the hand to her work. Much of her piety was shown when they were alone. She had fine purposes and great faith. Isaac remained in slavery till the results of the late war declared him free. In his circle of associates, many of whom were older than he, all came to young Burgan for counsel and direction. When his white companions brought new lessons from school, Isaac was among the first to learn them. So at an early age, though laboring under the disadvantage of having no teacher, he could read the lessons assigned his white playmates.

While a boy he was regarded as being too knowing to make a good slave, and it was thought best to sell him for eight hundred dollars; but as he showed a disposition to use his best thoughts and energy to the advantage of his owner, when the traders returned, fifteen hundred dollars were refused and Isaac regarded as the leading hand of the field. The most he knew of slavery beyond personal privations and restrictions, was from observation; because proving himself trustworthy he enjoyed favors and privileges denied his fellow-servants. The sorest conflict of his recollection grew out of an attempt on the part of the authorities to whip his mother. When the cruel work began young Burgan hastened to the scene. Here with bare feet and tattered garments he stood merely looking on till the screams of a loving mother pierced his heart to its depths. Then seizing a large poker he struck the man a telling blow on the back of the head. The brutal arm dropped and the lash was staid. Isaac fled for his life but soon returned, and in a few days got a double portion of that from which he saved his mother.

Leaving the home of his owner he hired out for a small sum per month, most of which was required to purchase winter clothing and shoes for his mother. After working for her three years, by her consent he went to Tennessee. Here he soon made his way into the free schools by paying his tuition. This was the beginning of a long struggle, for there were none to help and but few to encourage. When school was out he found the most lucrative business to be railroading. At this employment he accumulated several hundred dollars, every cent of which he consecrated to the cause of self education.

In December, 1869, he entered a select school in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He soon attracted the attention of his teachers and the whole school. The books of the class he entered were soon mastered and he was promoted. At the close of school the young student set out to replenish his purse. While working at Livermore, Kentucky, during the summer vacation, he met in prayer meeting a young man by the name of George Belt, who had been attending school in Evansville, and the two boys at once became friends and agreed to go to Evansville, which they did in October, 1870, and entered the public schools, taught by Rev. J. M. Townsend, D. D. Here he remained for three years, working most of the time with white families for a small sum and board. A large per cent, of the money he earned was added to the sum which he had deposited in the savings bank when he arrived in the city. By one of the families he had the best of treatment, rooming a part of the time with their son, who is now a lawyer in New Orleans. But he became disgusted with the service system and sought a boarding house, declaring that he would serve no more in that manner.

It was while under Rev. Townsend's instructions he received some of his best impressions, and he gives his teacher much credit for what he is. In the fall of 1873 he entered the State Normal school at Terre Haute. There he joined a class of fifty-two, most of whom were whites and graduates of High schools. Nevertheless, he took the lead in several branches, standing pre-eminent in mathematics and philosophy. In his struggles at Terre Haute, he proved himself a man of many plans. On entering the city he and a classmate contracted for three months' board at reduced rates. The boarding master failed to comply with the contract; Mr. Beecher (the classmate sought another boarding house, but our subject was not able to follow. So he rented a room and became cook and housekeeper. Work was soon secured which yielded ten dollars per month; but this was a dear income, for it had to be earned during the cold winters of 1873 and 1874 between five and seven o'clock in the morning. Very often this untiring student of the Normal school had to plunge into the darkness of the morning amid snow, rain and sleet, to get the post office cleaned and warmed by seven o'clock. The rush did not stop here, for hurry must be made to the baker's for a loaf of bread, and to the butcher's for his meat, and go home, make his fire, prepare his breakfast, and be at school by 8:45. But he braved it till school closed in the spring. When the session opened in the fall he secured, through the kindness of J. H. Walker the position of assistant mail agent. The 'income here was board and seven dollars per month; but being assigned to night work and finding it impossible to stay awake night and day, he was driven to abandon this and make other arrangements. He found the post office department ready to receive him. He added to this other work, making his income sixteen dollars per month, and arranged to board at fifteen dollars. This gave increased work for this winter (1874-5), which was more severe, if possible, than the preceding one. The boarding house being seven squares from the post office, much of the distance had to be made in double quick time. But this winter's work proved a little too much for the resolute student His studies had become difficult and often entertained him with an unbroken spell till a late hour at night; and then the quantity of labor required for his support compelled him to rise too early in the morning to get the requisite amount of sleep

Spring found him exhausted physically and mentally; and impaired health compelled him to leave school a month and a half before it closed. Having no stored purse upon which to draw, he was forced to break his resolution and serve again in a family.

Having spent five terms in the Normal and being near graduation, in the fall of 1875 he went to Lost Creek, near Terre Haute, to begin teaching, a work for which time has shown him to be well adapted. It was here on account of his governing powers, his ability to teach, his wonderful tact and skill to interest and inspire his pupils, that he received the appellation o'f " a natural born teacher." Mr. Burgan entered WilberforeUniversity September, 1878, to study for the Christian ministry.

While working on the railroad in Middle Tennessee he was converted at a Baptist revival, but joined no church. In Bowling Green, Kentucky, he placed himself under the watch care of the M. E. church, and was made Sunday- school superintendent and leader of the choir. In Evansville, Indiana, he joined the A. M. E. church, under Rev. A. T. Hall. His first official relation in the church of his choice was that of steward, under Rev. W. S. Lankford. He was appointed Sunday school teacher under the super- intendency of Professor J. M. Townsend, and proved himself a faithful worker. From early life he had been conscious of a call to the Christian ministry; but regarding the office as being the most exalted, and feeling unprepared for the work educationally, he withstood the persuasions of friends and refused to apply for license, both at Bowling Green and Evansville. While attending the Normal, the pious life of Rev. J. Mitchem.the pastor at that place, was brought to bear, and he said he would resist the call no longer; but application for license was deferred till 1876, when his former teacher, Rev. J. M. Townsend, set a willing hand to his license to exhort. This being done he decided not to return to the Normal to graduate, but to spend the remainder of his school days in some theological school. After uniting with the church at Lost Creek, in 1877, he was licensed to preach by Rev. John Myers. Having spent three years here he parted with a host of friends to seek higher attainments and greater work.

From the time he entered college on the above date he was closely connected with all the social and religious movements of the school, and his devotion added very much to the success of the church work. While in college he was never out of office. In church he was class-leader, trustee and finally pastor of the college chapel. At commencements he represented the theological rhetorical once, the Sodalian Literary Society twice, and was honored successively with the presidency of every college society to which males were admitted. In debate Mr. Burgan was peer of the best. In every contest except two, the decision was rendered in his favor; and in one case it was thought the jury was packed, and in the other it hung. At the close of his Sophomore year he joined the Indiana Annual conference at New Albany, under Bishop J. A. Shorter, and asked for work, stating that the years of privation and hardship which he had spent in school had about worn him out, and having no means of support he could not return to school. But the fatherly bishop, who influenced him to attend Wilberforce, at first insisted that he return and finish his course; then said confidentially, "I have been requested and have concluded to appoint you pastor at the college."

While at college he held charge at Mavsville, and Harvevsburg, and Troy, Ohio. By his pastoral work and weekly visitations to all families regardless of church affinity, and his care for the poor and needy, he is called even today " The God-man." During his stay in college he was compelled to shift many ways for support. The last two years the faculty voted him a scholarship of sixty dollars per annum. With this exception and a few dollars from the Indiana conference and friends, his attainments are the results of the sacrificing life and determined efforts. His favorite studies were the sciences. His class honored him as valedictorian and editor-in-chief of the college paper. His valedictory, subject "Commencement," was pronounced the best ever delivered at the institution. His commencement oration, subject "The Christian Ministry," was a masterpiece. In a few weeks after graduating he was ordained deacon by Bishop Shorter of Indianapolis.

After he finished his long and arduous work of preparation he was appointed principal of Paul Quinn College, at Waco, Texas. On the twenty-seventh of September, 1883, he and one other teacher arrived in Waco. They were met at the depot by three of the leading trustees, who directed them to a boarding house and arranged an hour for council. At the appointed time the trustees, laboring under very great discouragements, stated that the thought it best not to open school that year, and had concluded to wait till it could be opened under more favorable circumstances. After hearing their statement of facts, etc., Burgan said, "Closing the school for one year means death for ten, and it should be announced ready for work in the face of adverse circumstance." The next day it was agree to re-open on the conditions that the trustees be released of all financial responsibility, and th teachers be paid by the secretary with whatever might accrue from tuition. After laboring two months under this arrangement and receiving nothing in the way of com pensation, the trustees saw fit to lease the school to Bishop Cain. This placed the principal in a still more awkward position, and affairs continued dark.

There were some students in attendance, and Mr. Burga had the consciousness that he was doing good and labored on with one assistant during the greater part of the year; with no money from any source except the scant income from a few students, to pay teachers or make the necessary improvements. During this time enemies were rejoicing and friends almost quaking with fear. But the examinations during the closing exercises surpassed the highes expectations, and showed that excellent class work had been done; otherwise the condition of affairs was almost hopeless. Professor Burgan had invited the trustees to attend the closing, but none having come up to a late hour he telegraphed for Elder A. Grant, who responded by his presence. This brought others on the ground, and in their meetings (the lease having expired) it was thought that Professor Burgan was preeminently fitted to carry on the work, and he was elected president. Of the buildings on the premises exclusive of the brick, there was one frame for kitchen and dining room, an office and three shed rooms for young men. The president took fresh courage and resolved to replace the shed rooms by erecting a two story frame. In this effort he was again embarrassed for the want of cooperation and encouragement, but with a disposition to yield to nothing but impossibilities he succeeded. Under these and similar discouraging and adverse circumstances he has continued his arduous labors and achieved success for the college. In his sacrificing efforts to keep employed an able corps of teachers and to continue the usefulness of the college, he has closed school (more than once) without money enough to pay his vay out of Waco. As it required all his time, energy and money to prepare for life, and as his work since preparation has demanded sacrifice of almost everything that is dear to life, this hardworking servant of God has accumulated nothing but a library of good books. These have served as his tools and companions. Born and reared a Southerner, educated at the mother institution of the race, acquainted with the advanced work of Northern and Eastern institutions, with his physical vigor, mental ability and persevering spirit, President Burgan is destined for a still greater work among his people.

 

Sketch from Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising By William J. Simmons, Henry McNeal Turner

 

 

 

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