Donor Spotlight: Ollie Burns

The Ollie H. Burns Scholarship was established in 2003 for a deserving minority student enrolled in the MLIS program. The scholarship was created in honor of the legacy of Ollie Mae Hamilton Burns, the first African-American to graduate from the School of Library & Information Science at Louisiana State University.

Ollie Burns enrolled at Southern University in 1929, but was unable to complete her college education at the time due to the Great Depression. She instead began to teach kindergarten and elementary school students within Ouachita Parish where she had been raised. She returned to Grambling College, graduated in 1947, and continued to work in the Ouachita Parish School system as a teacher and librarian before entering the library science program at LSU in 1954.

She pursued educational goals at the height of desegregation tensions and recalled many experiences with students and faculty who openly opposed the 1951 court-ordered admission of African-American students to institutions of higher education. She recalled attending a meeting at a local church where State Senator Willie Rainach, member of the Louisiana Joint Legislative Committee, was in attendance as a guest speaker. Upon seeing her seated in the church audience, Senator Rainach left the premises and refused to speak. “A humble student of color from North Louisiana had effectively quieted the vocal, vitriolic segregationist”, said Burns of the experience.

After graduating from LSU in 1957, she continued to work in public education and school libraries and was also regarded as an accomplished civic leader and community activist. She was the first African-American appointed to the Ouachita Public Library Board of Control, serving two terms as chairman, and the first African-American to serve as Chair of the Public Libraries Section of the Louisiana Library Association (1986-1987). She also received the Modisette Award from the Louisiana Library Trustees in 1991 for her outstanding work with public libraries. Active in the League of Women Voters and the Louisiana Democratic Voters League in the 1950s, Burns and her husband routinely participated in voter registration drives in Ouachita Parish. She also established the first legal aid program in Ouachita Parish and was a member of the City of Monroe Human Rights Council. Upon retiring in 1976, Burns obtained state funding for an after-school tutorial and study program, establishing the New Way Center, where burns served as director for 20 years. The program served as a model for the development of similar programs throughout the country.

Ollie Burns exemplified leadership in the face of adversity, demonstrated a commitment to inclusivity in her professional and educational pursuits, and encouraged minorities to pursue careers in the library and information science field. We continue to remember the accomplishments of this revolutionary woman and alumna through the Ollie H. Burns Scholarship at SLIS.