2021 Sankofa South Orange Black History Month Stories

2021 Sankofa South Orange Black History Month Interview Gregory Burrus – Chapter Five

Gregory Burrus

Gregory Burrus, Patch Mayor. South Orange, NJ is a community advocate, live music producer, promoter, local media contributor, writer, blogger and journalist for local SOMA Patch and JerseyIndie and other JerseyNYC websites.

Sankofa

Sankofa: Honoring Our Stories is a project celebrating the stories of Black residents of South Orange, past and present, to create a meaningful narrative of the contributions and impact of Black residents on South Orange. Sankofa: Honoring Our Stories is a project of the South Orange Village Center Alliance.

You can listen here: https://blackhistorysovca.com/stories/chapter-five

“What I found music does is it provides people with a sense of relief… The impact I have seen (of music), which was really escalated this (Pandemic )year is, it gave people (a) peace of mind and someplace safe to go and at the same time, feel good. Maybe dance a little, have dinner, and meet with friends and neighbors.”

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Read an excerpt from Gregory Burrus’s conversation with the interviewers or listen to his story below. (Transcriptions are lightly edited for readability and clarity.)

Gregory Burrus  
My name is Gregory Burrus.

I do live music, producing, promotion and, community advocacy work for South Orange and some of Maplewood.

Interviewer
What does Black History Month mean to you?

Gregory Burrus 
To me, it means the ability to highlight what we as a people have been doing for years, and we use a month to highlight it, but we should be doing it every month of the year. 

Even myself, I produce a post a day off my blog onto Facebook and other places where I do social media, about different things Black folks do. It’s more of a highlight of the day than it is the only celebration of the year.

Interviewer
Can you describe where your family’s from geographically?

Gregory Burrus 
My grandfather was from England and my grandmother was from Barbados. They came through Ellis Island into Manhattan, then over to the Harlem around 101st. We ended up in the Bronx and then from the Bronx we made it to Jersey City and to South Orange.

Interviewer 
How can you describe the community in South Orange?

Gregory Burrus
The community is very friendly and open. It’s small, but people talk to each other. I do a lot of live music for the town in the summer and at different times of the year so I get to run into a lot of people. Pretty much they’re friendly, they’re open. 

I came out here in 1997 so my two kids went to school here. They just left the house and walked a mile or so to school and back and it was never an issue. So I find it to be pretty good.

Interviewer
And what are you most proud of as a resident in the community?

Gregory Burrus 
Helping people understand the live music environment that I bring to town. 

One of the nice things we did, which was pretty cool, was we were able to do live music this past summer, through the pandemic. The town found a way to go out and people found a way to get together and stay somewhat safe as we move through one of the biggest challenges of life in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interviewer
You mentioned that you have done live music in South Orange during the pandemic. Music can be a great way to find joy in a time that is very difficult for many people. How do you personally think your music events have impacted the community?

Gregory Burrus  
What I found music does is help people have relief because we do all types of music. The impact that I have seen, which was really escalated this year is it gave people peace of mind and someplace safe to go and at the same time feel good. Maybe dance a little, have dinner, and meet with friends and neighbors. 

So the impact to me is helping people relieve a little stress from their work and at the same time gather in a place where they can have a community and talk to each other over the type of music that they like.

Interviewer
Okay, so how would you describe the music [you book]? What type of music is it?

Gregory Burrus  
Being a self-avowed jazz nut, of course, one of the genres I’m always pushing is jazz and R&B. Then it runs the gamut. Prior to this year, we always had music at the gazebo, right across from the fire station, and we would do stuff in Spiotta Park. At various times, we’d move around town. We’d do everything: we’ve had a guy come out and do Indian music, we’ve had Israeli disco music, and the classics — rock, pop, jazz, you name it. It really stretches the gamut. 

We do have a very big jazz community around here, so the gazebo you see behind me in the pictures, is where we do Jazz on Sloan. Everything else was in Spiotta park or somewhere else. 

Interviewer  
It’s now much more known that Black people, especially African Americans have such a large impact on the music genres that we enjoy today, whether it’s jazz, hip hop, pop, R&B, country, you name it. Who are some of your favorite black musicians, singers, etc?

Gregory Burrus  
We’re talking South Orange here so I’ll stick with that. A couple of quick names come to mind. 

One of them, and she just passed, is a woman named Lee Boswell-May. Her husband was Earl May, who was a very famous bass player who played around the world. She walked the streets with us. She was always at my events and we’re talking about a good 60 events throughout the summer. She just recently passed at the beginning of the COVID experience, in April, and she lived right there on South Orange Avenue. She was a big influence because she did the Jazz in the Loft at SOPAC. They’ve been doing that for 20 years. 

Another person was John Lee, who lives in South Orange. He’s played worldwide with a number of people; he’s a famous bass player. He’s had a big effect on people and he does Giants of Jazz at SOPAC. He can get like 50 to 100 musicians from around the world to show up. 

It’s people like that, who have a big effect, have been here a while, and yet their arms reach out to the world. 

Interviewer
Out of all your time in the community here have you faced any racism or prejudice?

Gregory Burrus  
I would say not as much as probably some other people have. For example, one of the people I just mentioned, Lee Boswell-May. She was at the South Orange Middle School. Before it was where it is now, it was up on South Orange Ave by Spiotta Park. She would tell me how stories of going home from school, when it did move, she’d have to come down one side of the street, get up to Sloan Street or Valley, and then make a right to go down Third or Second. Stories like that, I’ve heard.

I came out here in 1997. I had my daughter and my son go to school here. I can’t say they’ve run into too much of it other than in major events, where I’ll say people were just generally not being treated as well as they should have. 

I had a corporate career where, being darker than other people, it was a common thing to get pushed to the left or to the right, yet figure out how to go around. So I haven’t run into it a lot of it directly. But I’m not gonna say it doesn’t exist either.

Interviewer
How have you overcome these experiences?

Gregory Burrus   
One thing that I learned over time was that if something gets in your way, you have to figure out to go through it, around it, under it, or over it. The whole concept of someone says you can’t do something, or you shouldn’t do something, to me, it was always a matter of backing up and going another way to get it done if you couldn’t go directly ahead. 

There’s plenty of places I went, where me and three or four other people would show up in Atlanta or Alabama, or wherever I was traveling. People would talk to everybody else in the group except me, even though I was leading the group. You learn to get over that bias and keep moving forward. To me, it was always a matter of you could ignore me once, ignore me twice, but you won’t ignore me the third time because I’m still gonna keep pushing to get done what I have to get done.

Interviewer 
Can you share any historical figures or places in South Orange that are significant to the Black community that you would like people to know about?

Gregory Burrus 
People like Lee Boswell-May, who has a history, who was born here many years ago, she impressed me with her knowledge of things that happen in town and what things were before. 

The First Baptist Church of South Orange is very impressive from that perspective. The Reverend Richardson had a history on his website of the church that went all the way back. He was able to chronicle it way back to the days that he started. I think something like the First Baptist Church is an example for black people to see that it’s there. And it’s working. We have empowerment within ourselves to make things like that happen. 

Other than that, there’s different things we do, but it’s a community we live in with other people. So to me, it’s like, how do we make it all work together?

Interviewer
Who is your greatest inspiration throughout black history that has shaped your journey?

Gregory Burrus  
Probably my mother. She had us three kids and she had to work through all the changes and challenges of life coming up back in the day when racism was literally shut the door and you couldn’t move. They had to figure out how to support the family and keep it going and all. 

That’s usually who I look at when things go wrong. I think about the fact that she had three kids and my father was there but then he passed when I was in 11th grade and I still had a younger sister, five years younger. We still learned how to move about life and keep things going. 

She was a determined figure. That’s usually who I look at when you use the word “shaping.” 

Interviewer
As we celebrate Black History Month in the downtown business district of South Orange, what are your favorite Black-owned businesses that we should know about?

Gregory Burrus   
One is Inkosi up on Irvington Ave. We grew up on the same block in Hartford Court and he opened his restaurant. He used to do hair and then I watched him go into his restaurant. Through all of these challenges, he’s still there. 

D&I Fitness. I like what they do when we do music there. They’re very accommodating and helpful. 

One of the places I like a lot is SteelMclean, right there on Village Plaza, who’s a barbershop. What impressed me was I saw him when he first started. He is has lasted and barber shops tend to come and go a lot. He has lasted over a good four or five years. He has a haircare product line and he’s very professional about what he does. He figures out how to make it work and survive. 

The blending smoothie guy is very good. He does a lot of stuff and he’s very focused. The Dancing Blender. 

Those are some of the ones from a Black-owned business perspective that I think are good, powerful. To me, the longevity means they really focus on what they’re doing and they help the community when they can.

Interviewer
This entire project is called Sankofa which means to go back and fetch it. Meaning that we have to go back in order to move forward, we have to look towards our history in order to move towards our future. With that in mind, what message would you like to leave for the next generation of black South Orange residents coming up in the community or anyone who’s going to access this recording? 

Gregory Burrus  
I will leave the message that I leave with my daughter and my son: Let absolutely nothing get in your way. Understand the power that you have, even when you don’t think you have it. Get involved in the community and really get to know people. The ones you like and ones you don’t like; the ones you get along with and ones you don’t.

It is absolutely amazing what you can accomplish once you get out there and you start making things happen. We tend to walk out and say somebody else’s doing something and I don’t know if I can. My message would be just get out there, step out there, figure out what’s happening and just keep pushing. You have no idea the power you have within yourself until you start doing it.

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Greg Burrus  You can listen here: https://blackhistorysovca.com/stories/chapter-five

Thanks for being here

Gregory Burrus

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