The remarkable Dorothy Burnham

Still taking her walks, playing Scrabble at 107.

Dorothy Burnham is 107 years old but is still going on walks and playing scrabble. — Jeremy Driesen

At 107, the remarkable Dorothy Burnham holds court as the queen of the Oak Bluffs Campground. She was born March 22, 1915. She has only one complaint: “My memory is a problem.”

Her birthplace was in Brooklyn, N.Y., where her parents were first-generation Bahamian immigrants. After majoring in biology at Brooklyn College, she and her husband Louis E. Burnham moved to Birmingham, Ala., during the Depression, where they were active in the civil rights movement, including the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). 

When the couple returned from Birmingham to Brooklyn, Dorothy practiced bacteriology, researching and identifying bacteria for hospitals, and creating samples to identify the relevant diseases that caused them. Then she taught biology at SUNY Empire State College and Hostos Community College. That didn’t stop her from joining the broad coalition organized by the Communist Party.

When the SNYC disbanded in 1948, she continued to remain active in civil rights and the women’s movements of the 1950s and 1960s, belonging to Jeans and Gender and other activist groups. She also wrote for Freedom, a monthly newspaper of African American culture and politics, for which her husband was managing editor. She remained active into her 70s. After she retired, she traveled extensively, including to Africa. As if that isn’t enough, Dorothy was awarded the 2022 Clara Lemlich award for Social Activism.

Her activist involvement included serving as executive secretary of the Brooklyn Negro Youth Federation of the National Negro Congress, and she has been profiled in the Amsterdam News, as well as appearing in oral history interviews by Lindsey Lee for the M.V. Museum. Her two sisters have been equally accomplished. Elise Rollock became one of the few Black school principals in Brooklyn, while her other sister, Ida May Bohanan, raised a family of four as well as working in the school system.

Both she and her grandson Jordon will appear in this year’s annual Tabernacle Art Show. Her book, “The Art of Dorothy Burnham,” was published in 2021. 

Dorothy first started coming to the Vineyard when her sister Elise bought a house on New York Avenue in Oak Bluffs, where members of her extended family would visit her in the summer. Dorothy then bought the house on Cottage Park in the Oak Bluffs Campground, where she spent the summer and provided housing for her granddaughters, and one great-granddaughter, while they worked on-Island. Jordon painted the house in blue trim, her favorite color, as well as the small shed behind her house. 

Dorothy thinks of the Campground as home, a place where she can keep active, enjoying the mix of people that pass by or come to talk. Until recently she belonged to a book club, and walked to the Oak Bluffs Senior Center, where she took art classes. She still walks to the corners of Cottage Park and back. When she’s not in her Campgrounds home, she divides her time among her equally accomplished children — Margaret, who lives in the Boston area, Claudia, who lives in Brooklyn, Linda who lives in Oakland, Calif., and Charles, who also lives in Brooklyn, and whose wife looks after Dorothy. During a Christmas visit in 2000, she authored poems for a family collection. 

Dorothy attributes her longevity to the absence of health problems and to eating the right food: No sugar or junk food for her. Regular walks have also extended her life, and she used to walk regularly to Reliable Market and the Post Office. Her 100th birthday was the occasion for a big birthday celebration; another one was on Zoom in 2020, because of COVID; and she plans a smaller one coming up. Has she resigned from her activities? Far from it: She still plays Scrabble.