Finding Peace by Ramsey Nix
Writer Ramsey Nix remembers the life of Morgan Countian Charlie Burney
portraits by angelina bellebuono
My career in journalism affords me the opportunity to meet some truly wonderful people and unforgettable characters. Some of them leave an impression that lingers long after our interview is over and the story published. Last spring, while documenting the historical legacy of the area where Town Park now stands, I first encountered one such character. He was losing his sight, but his eyes sparkled. He walked with a cane, but his handshake was firm. He possessed the confidence of a man who lived life to the fullest and was brimming with stories to tell.
Charlie Burney was one of the fellows who used to gather on the park benches at the corner of West Washington and North Second, where Town Park now stands. Once a bustling commercial thoroughfare, this corner historically served as an anchor of Madison’s African-American community. Burney could remember Franklin Pool Hall, Mr. Wilson Bass and Mr. Bugg’s barbershop, Fish Delite, Ethel Franklin’s sewing shop, and Corner Grill– all businesses that have long since closed.
Burney didn’t have long to talk that day we first met at the NAACP office, because he had to catch the Morgan County Transit back to his home in Rutledge. He gave me his phone number so that we could meet again, so that I could hear his stories. By the time I called him back, his daughter informed me that he had taken ill and had been moved to hospice care. She kindly scheduled a time for me and photographer Angelina Bellebuono to meet him at the hospice care center.
Born in 1924, Burney’s mother, Sallie, raised him and four siblings in Newborn, after Charlie, Sr., a sharecropper, passed away. When Burney married, he and his wife, Annie Bula, moved across the Morgan County line to Rutledge, where he lived ever since. In his thirties, he began traveling into Madison to meet up with friends on the corner of N. 2nd and W. Washington in the evenings after work. “We did business there and at the county courthouse,” he recalled. When he found a job in Atlanta, he still came down for gatherings on weekends. After retiring, he lingered for longer periods on the park bench, mostly on weekday mornings.
Throughout his adult life, Burney preferred to wear starched dress shirts and slacks, which he got dry-cleaned at J.K. Love Laundry mid-block up W. Washington (where Pandamonium is today). His daughter, Jeanette Howard, recalled running errands with him. “We did all of our shopping there. There was always a lot going on,” she said. “She used to buy peppermint candy,” her father added.
Burney recalled times long past, when Rev. Oscar Crawford would travel from his church in Newborn to commune with his “brothers” in Madison. The bench was a gathering place for leaders of the area’s many rural black churches. Crawford would ask about people’s needs in the community. “Mostly we talked about what we could do to help each other,” said Burney, who served as deacon at Wallace Grove Baptist Church.
For years Burney delivered firewood and homegrown vegetables all over the county. Customers always knew when and where to find him. When failing health rendered him unable to drive, Burney walked the eight miles from his home in Rutledge to Madison on days he wished to socialize with friends on that bench. Regardless of weather, he always showed up wearing freshly pressed dress clothes.
When Burney passed away on January 12, his daughter lost a sweet father, the community lost a friend, and Morgan County lost a repository of memories. I hear that his church swelled with parishioners at his memorial service on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. During the service, his daughter played a recording of Burney singing, “Do You Know The Man,” because he had dreamed of himself singing that song before a full church, and she wanted to fulfill his dream. He sang that song to me and Angelina before we left him at the hospice care center that day. Burney said that singing always gave him peace. It gave us peace, as well.
Printed in the January 27 edition.