By Cait Kemp
A line in the book, The History of Athletics and Physical Education at Howard University by Ted Chambers, reads:
“In the next 15 years, Burr would have a greater impact on Howard athletics than anyone else in the school’s history.”
To be said to have a greater impact than anyone else in a school’s history is an impressive statement. But this is not surprising when it is understood the type of man that Burr was.
John Harold Burr was born in Springfield, Mass., in 1898. He attended the public schools in the city and graduated from Springfield Technical High School. From there, he didn’t go far.
Geographically, that is.
Burr attended Springfield College to study physical education while also playing soccer, basketball, baseball and running track. He was an outstanding athlete, most often recognized for his remarkable speed, which was frequently written about in the Springfield Republican during his high school years.
“Johnny Burr has been the main point-getter for the last four years on the Home city track team and last season broke out in basketball, making a wonderful showing,” said an article from a 1919 edition of the Republican. “Burr was positively the fastest sprinter in high school… The Young Men’s Christian Association College will receive one of the best all-around athletes turned out in the local schools in Burr.”
Burr was a standout on the track, but also had a significant role on the soccer team. He was a member of Springfield’s New England championship team of 1921.
“At the Young Men’s Christian Association training college, where nearly all sports are part of the curriculum, soccer had a high place. John H. Burr, once physical director for men at Howard University, was a member of the New England championship team of Springfield in 1921,” author Edwin Bancroft Henderson said in his book, The Negro in Sports.
Following his schooling at Springfield College, Burr almost immediately was hired at Howard University as the Assistant Athletic Director and basketball coach in the fall of 1923.
As coach of Howard University’s basketball team, Burr reigned. The teams under his leadership won six CIAA titles and were runners-up in the championship five times. This dominance was important to show the talent that a historically Black university can have, as well as the legitimacy of their programs.
The gymnasium at Howard University was renamed the Burr Gymnasium in 1974 to honor Burr’s legacy. According to Howard University’s athletics website, “Burr rose to prominence as a pioneer in Black participation in the sport of soccer and contributed to Howard’s dominance in Historically Black College and Universities championships during the 1950s.”
The impact of Burr’s coaching and leadership at Howard University was a reflection on the work he did prior at Springfield College and in the community. He wrote his thesis on physical education in Black colleges and universities, proving his passion for his career. He was dedicated to making a difference in the lives of young athletes, especially athletes of color, who were more likely to experience injustice within physical education programs.
Burr’s love for helping others shone through in his work in the community. He was a member of the Executive Committee of the 12th Street Branch of the Y.M.C.A., as well as being involved in the Red Cross, in which he won awards for his commitment to both of these organizations.
To add to his achievements and contributions toward helping others, he was also involved in the Alpha Kappa chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha. This chapter of the fraternity has existed in Western Massachusetts since 1922, making it the oldest historically Black Greek organization at any college or university.
Burr was a part of the beginnings of Alpha Kappa, and helped to build the organization on the bases of service and enhancing the experiences of people despite their backgrounds.
His dedication to physical education and helping to grow students and athletes was immeasurable.
Photo Courtesy Springfield College Archives