On Saturday, August 24, John Pierre Burr, the Africa-American abolitionist and natural son of former Vice President Aaron Burr, will finally receive a headstone on his grave. When John Pierre Burr died on April 4, 1864, he was laid to rest in Olive Cemetery at Girard and Belmont Avenues, which was later condemned and cleared by the City of Philadelphia. His remains, along with those of various family members, were moved to the Olive Section of Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania in 1902, leaving he and his family without markers.
According to oral history passed down by close friends of Aaron Burr’s family and living African-American descendants, John Pierre Burr’s mother, Mary Eugénie Beauharnais Emmons, was born in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, and later brought to Saint Dominque, Haiti. She would ultimately arrive in Philadelphia as a servant of James Marcus Prevost, the first husband of Theodosia Bartow who would later become Vice President Aaron Burr’s first wife. In this household, Aaron Burr met Mary Eugénie, who lived as a servant to the family. She would give birth to two of Burr’s children, Louisa Burr and John Pierre Burr, which he initially did not recognize as his own offspring.
“Every year we would receive membership dues from a Louella Mitchell Allen,” said Stuart Johnson, president of the Aaron Burr Association. “After investigating a tip from another member, we discovered that she was a descendant of John Pierre Burr, son of Vice President Aaron Burr.” Johnson, a distant cousin of Aaron Burr, upon learning of Allen’s identity, would go on to establish contact with her. Sherri Burr, a law professor at the University of Mexico and a distant relative of John Pierre Burr, would also join in the investigation of their shared lineage to find sufficient proof to corroborate much of what was then considered only oral history.
Allen passed away shortly after 2005, but not before her family was welcomed by the Aaron Burr Association. In 2018, the group would accept her claims as fact and appoint Sherri Burr as their vice president. “Learning about John Pierre Burr’s abolitionist activities on the Underground Railroad touched me and gave me a sense of duty to live up to his memory,” said Sherri Burr.
John Pierre Burr lived as a free man in the neighborhood now known as Society Hill. During his time in Philadelphia, he took on several roles as an abolitionist prior to the Civil War. As a member of both the Vigilance Committee and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, he used his lighter complexion to accompany runaway slaves to their next destination. When questioned by suspicious police officers, historians allege that he would simply reply that he was taking “his man,” implying “his servant,” for a walk.
John Pierre Burr’s barbershop at 5th and Locust Streets was used as a hideaway for runaway slaves until they had an opportunity to move to the next safe haven. He served as a contributor to William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, raised money for the men indicated for treason in the Christiana Riot of 1851, promoted emigration for blacks to Haiti after its creation, started the Demosthenian Institute that taught black men how to speak publicly, and aided in establishing the American Moral Reform Society in 1836, which held retreats to assist both white and blacks in becoming moral, upstanding Americans.
Over the years, John Pierre Burr became a leader among the local black elite and worked with famed abolitionists Robert Purvis and Reverend William Catto, father of Octavius V. Catto. He also engaged with the Quakers to work on abolishing slavery.
John Pierre Burr eventually married another abolitionist, Hestor “Hetty” Elizabeth Emery. A hairdresser by trade, Emery attended the Women’s Anti-Slavery Conventions in 1838 and 1839. She became a member of The Colored Female Free Produce Society of Pennsylvania and the co-founder of the Moral Reform Retreat, which was the first shelter exclusively for black women.
Throughout his later years, former vice president Aaron Burr became a fixture in John Pierre Burr’s life and even provided him a home in Warwick, New York.
After the Civil War began, John Pierre Burr urged African-American men to take up arms and join the Union Army following the publication of Fredrick Douglass’ 1863 editorial, “Men of Color to Arms.” The abolitionist continued to work in this capacity until his death in 1864.
“The headstone resolves for eternity the parentage of John Pierre Burr,” said Sherri Burr. Henceforth, he is no longer the reputed son or natural son of Aaron Burr. He is the son of Vice President Aaron Burr.”
So, why is this placement of a headstone so important? The easy answer is recognition. Throughout most of John Pierre Burr’s life, and the many years after his death, he was never recognized by Aaron Burr or his family, much less historians or the American public. His final resting place is an unmarked grave that he most likely shares his mother, sister, and other family members. Even today, his accomplishments as an important abolitionist exist mainly on a Wikipedia page, in oral history, and in short references within academic publications.
Over the past few years, Philadelphians have become acquainted with the names of local, unsung black figures like Pioneer Alice, Ona Judge, Hercules, Octavius V. Catto, and Dinah. Once considered simply as property, these African Americans risked their lives in the fight for freedom and equality. With Saturday’s official headstone ceremony, John Pierre Burr joins this list when his the life and work will finally be formally recognized.
On Saturday, August 24, at 10:00AM a headstone dedication ceremony will be held for John Pierre Burr at Eden Cemetery, 1434 Springfield Road, in Collingdale, Pennsylvania. A reception and discussion led by author and law professor Sherri Burr will follow exploring the abolitionist’s legacy in Philadelphia.