Educated in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Alabama, Hattie Burton would study stories in the Chicago Defender about good jobs up North.
For Mrs. Burton and many other African-Americans in the South, the Defender “was really the pipeline to their dreams,” said her daughter Cheryl Burton, an ABC7 Chicago news anchor.
In 1958, Mrs. Burton came to Chicago, where she taught for 38 years in the city’s schools. While working as a teacher, Mrs. Burton got a master’s degree in counseling from Chicago State University. Sometimes, she wound up bringing Sherri, her youngest child, to class, if she didn’t have a sitter when her husband Simpson was in Washington, D.C., working on his law degree.
After retiring, she continued teaching, helping to found a special education program at Evangelical Christian School at 91st and Vincennes.
Each day when their children came home from school, Hattie and Simpson Burton set up an easel.
“We would have to go up and show what you learned at school,” Cheryl Burton said. “They would line us up for that and line us up to do the Lord’s Prayer at the end of the day.”
Their five children collectively earned five bachelor’s degrees and nine master’s degrees. One daughter, Shirley Burton, is working on a doctoral dissertation.
Mrs. Burton — who had a ring that spelled out, “My Kids are the Best” — died of pneumonia Nov. 22 at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. She was 87.
She grew up Hattie Woods in Pine Hill, midway between Mobile and Birmingham. She was the youngest of three daughters of teacher Daisie Woods and her husband Calvin, a steel mill worker.
In 1947, she graduated from A.H. Parker, a “black” high school in Birmingham, Ala., that produced alums including actress Nell Carter, musicians Sun Ra and Erskine Hawkins and Eric Bledsoe of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Many young men were interested in her, Cheryl Burton said, including one from nearby Westfield, Alabama: future baseball Hall-of-Famer Willie Mays.
But once she met Simpson Burton at Miles College, “That was the only man,” their daughter said.
The Burtons got married after her graduation in 1951.
Mrs. Burton moved to Cheyenne, Wyoming with her husband, who was stationed in the Air Force. But she couldn’t get a job with the Cheyenne public schools.
She “was told that they did not need any Negro teachers because they did not have any Negro students,” according to a eulogy by Shirley Burton.
She wound up teaching typing and English to airmen and airwomen instead.
After they moved to Chicago, she taught at Attucks, Haines and Sbarbaro grade schools and at Carver, DuSable, Englewood and Phillips high schools. She was a special education teacher at Healy and Raymond. And at Holden school, down the hall from her daughter Shirley — also a teacher — Mrs. Burton taught children with special needs.
“She probably gave one ‘F’ in 40 years,” Cheryl Burton said.
“One time, a student threw a dart in her ankle,” she said. But rather than seek punishment, “She went to the child’s house and understood the [child’s] frustration. She said, ‘Your child is struggling.’ My mom never suspended anybody.
“She was the ‘Encourager-in-Chief.’ ’’
If her children reported somebody was saying something negative about them, she’d tell them: “You’re in good company. They talked about Jesus, too.”
After retiring, she worked as an office manager at her son William’s information technology company.
During the winter, Mrs. Burton lived in a community in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Her Sunshine State home was “the Pink Palace” — her favorite color. Her casket will be pink, too.
She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Her husband and her sister Izalee Hamilton died before her. In addition to her son William and daughters Cheryl, Shirley, Sherri Turk and Michelle Burton Mays, Mrs. Burton is survived by a sister, Carlean McClure, and four grandchildren. Services are planned this weekend.