Huddled around my small office at the Boyle Street Community Centre, the Burlie Family exchanged hellos with Martin Daniels, one of our long-term community members. I had told Martin about the special guests I was expecting and he couldn’t help but give them a Boyle Street welcome. Grinning through the gap in his teeth, he leaned into the room and shouted, “Welcome to the Boyle Street Co-op! I hope you enjoy your time here!”
Background and Early Life
Boyle Street Community Services started as a co-operative of inner-city agencies in 1971. Mary Burlie was one of our first volunteers and became a Boyle Street legend with 26 years of frontline service. Mary’s daughters, Stephanie and Tony; her granddaughter Tanika; and her son-in-law Richard were visiting to tell me more about Mary’s life and legacy at Boyle Street. Stephanie and Richard remembered Martin from their own work in the inner-city and happily returned his greeting.
Mary Burlie was born in Arkadelphia, Arkansas in 1935 to a family of thirteen. Growing up in a Black share-cropping family in the deep south under Jim Crow law was not easy. Mary grew up moving from state to state with her mother, Aida McGregor, who made a living as a cook. Reflecting on Mary’s childhood, Tony remarked:
“I can’t imagine. I know it was rough. A lot of things she didn’t talk about because she was trying to protect us. But, you know, as you get older you find these things out... You see the Black Lives Matter movement juxtaposed with Mississippi and we’ve come a long way, but, not so far.”
Mary’s children remember moving to Canada as a turning point for their family. Mary married a Canadian, John Burlie, and moved to Edmonton in 1969. With six children at home, Mary was looking for a way to get out of the house and find her calling. Alice Hanson, Boyle Street’s Executive Director at the time, told the story of how Mary got involved at Boyle Street:
“I remember the day. I had met her someplace; she was living in the community and she had all these kids, and one day she walked into my office when we were having trouble in the Drop-In. It was a hot day and it was jammed. It was in the old building and Mary walked into my office without knocking. She had on a yellow dress, bright yellow, right to the ground, and she looked at me and she said, “Mrs. Hanson, you need help.” And I said, “I know I do Mary, but I don’t have any money for another staff person.” “That’s alright honey, I’ll volunteer until you find the money.” That’s how Mary came to the Co-Op.” [Boyle Street 30th Anniversary book]
Contributions to Boyle Street
Mary became close friends with Boyle Street’s leadership and played an integral role as a member of Boyle Street’s staff. Her volunteering quickly turned into a paid, full-time job. Mary was incredibly tenacious and had seventeen cases open at a time while other staff managed six. Though Mary was quite introverted in her personal life, working for Boyle Street was a point of pride for her, and she handed out her business cards readily.
Mary was beloved by the community, and absolutely committed to the people she served. During my conversations with Mary’s friends and family, I heard nearly five versions of a story about Mary and Boyle Street’s Klondike Days float. Volunteers built a huge float in the shape of our building, intending to put Mary on an honorary seat at the back. To everyone’s dismay, they forgot to leave an entrance for her and she had to be “airlifted” lifted in.
Mary connected particularly well with the Indigenous community. She didn’t have an easy life and was able to understand stigma and discrimination in a way that resonated with the Indigenous peoples we serve. The Burlie family is still amazed by the women who approach them today to thank Mary for her help in reconnecting them with their own children. Hope Hunter, Boyle Street’s third Executive Director, remembers Mary for her compassion:
“Mary was just so warm and loving. She called everyone “babe.” Everybody was so touched because they thought, ‘It’s so wonderful that Mary knows who I am and Mary remembers me’. She was very good at figuring out what to talk to everybody about.
Something that struck me most about Mary is that she truly lived her own philosophy in her professional and personal life. Mary felt at home in the inner-city and loved eating at the Golden Nugget, a restaurant that used to be across from Boyle Street. Her children recounted being shocked when Mary brought clients home for Christmas Dinner -- an example of the kindness that inspired Stephanie and Richard to work in the inner-city today:
“Someone would knock on the door and mom would say, ‘Oh, I just want to let you know that this is one of the people that I work with, and they didn’t have anywhere to go for Christmas and they’re hungry’. And, you know, as kids, we would say, 'We don’t want to deal with those kinds of people.' But later in life, here we are, working with them, and she inspired us to do that.”
Mary had both a soft side and a daunting presence. There were days when Mary was the only person people would listen to at Boyle Street. All of the friends and family I spoke to insisted that Mary’s story not be sugar-coated. Mary lived at the edge of skid row and struggled financially. In the words of one of Mary’s colleagues, Jonathan Murphy, “she was both a part of and a mother of the street life.” Her children described her as a big woman with a deep voice who had an incredible knack for sneaking up on people and would not hesitate to bounce troublemakers.
Mary was a multi-talented frontline worker who succeeded through the integrity of her character. She received a Distinguished Citizen Award in 1992 from MacEwan University, which represented her success in a society with multiple barriers to Black women without educations. She fought for women, children, and families as the President of the Alberta Black Women’s Association and Change for Children, and in her personal life as a foster mom.
The Black Angel of Boyle Street
Mary is remembered as the “Black Angel of Boyle Street,” a title her family celebrated at Edmonton’s 2018 Black History Month. To her children and community, Mary truly is an angel, as Stephanie explained:
“When you think of angels, what are they, you know, I think my mom was an angel. Because she was so humble, and she never walked around thinking that what she was doing needed to be spoken about, that’s how humble she really was.”
The Burlie Family’s biggest regret is that the park named after Mary has not been kept in good condition. Mary Burlie Park, located on 97th Street, was created in 1999 and named after Mary when her name was chosen by a community naming contest. The Burlie Family have visited the park for years but Stephanie says that she struggles to take her grandchildren there because of the garbage, structural decay, and crime in the park. The city has considered demolishing the park over the past ten years but, so far, nothing has been done.
Demolishing the park would be a great disservice to The Burlie Family, the people Mary worked with and served, and Edmonton at large. The Burlie Family continues to fight for the restoration of the park and its place within the inner-city. Stephanie explained the importance of Mary Burlie Park to the Black community and newcomers in Edmonton:
"For the Black community, we don’t have very many landmarks, but we can say, 'Hey, you know, someone of colour, someone from our community has had an impact.' And the newcomers that come here from Africa and places, they don’t know very much about people who have been here before them. Being in the community and knowing the impact of people who really put in the effort and really have worked hard without any of the accolades, I think we need to find a way to lift those people up.”
Black Angel Still Blooming
When I started working at Boyle Street this summer, I was looking for inspiration to guide me as I tried my best to accompany our clients through an incredibly challenging time. Mary Burlie is that inspiration. I’m a writer, not a frontline worker, but Mary’s ability to stay true to herself and bring out the best in others reminds me of the work I see my colleagues doing every day. Many staff and clients at Boyle Street still remember Mary, and now that I know her story, I see echoes of her everywhere. In the words of Mary’s son-in-law, Richard:
“Mary is not forgotten. Her legacy is still living. We’re having the conversation today. So her spirit is still alive and well in the inner city. The Black Angel is still blooming in people’s hearts and inspiring people because of Mary’s story, and others like it that have contributed to making Boyle Street Community Services what they are today.”
Written by Freya Hammond-Thrasher, Communications Coordinator, Boyle Street Community Services.
Thank you to the Burlie Family and the many Boyle Street staff, volunteers, and community members who shared Mary's story with me.