‘We’ve made an accomplishment here.’ Olive Burroughs and the origin of the Neighborhood Alliance

February 18, 2022 | 12:11 am

Updated February 17, 2022 | 11:07 pm

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One of the most important liaisons from Owensboro residents to the city commission is typically found at Neighborhood Alliance meetings. These meetings help residents confide in a chairperson, detailing the needs and issues that arise in their neighborhoods.

Through the Neighborhood Alliance program, community issues such as flooding, awareness of community events, and more is brought to the commissioners’ attention.

One of the most instrumental developers behind that program was Olive Burroughs.

Born in Owensboro in 1951, Burroughs made history as the third female commissioner and first African American woman to serve on the city commission in 1995.

Burroughs grew up in Owensboro and noted that she lived in a very transitional time for the city, according to records from the Kentucky Room of Daviess County Public Library.

Her daughter Yager Burroughs Lewis said from a young age, she knew her mother was breaking barriers. When Olive started school at a young age, the city was starting to desegregate the schools and different public areas.

Olive started her school experience at Western High School — an all-grades Black school — until 6th grade.

The year was 1961 when she and a friend decided that they will go to an all-white school and be some of the first students to desegregate the schools.

They went to Longfellow Elementary School on Frederica Street. They walked up Walnut Avenue, down Griffith Avenue and into the doors of the newly segregated school.

“It was definitely an experience. … For two 10- and 11-year-old girls to walk that far to school and back home every day was really a tremendous experience,” Olive said in an interview in 1999.

At that school, she said she experienced her first instances of racism — children not wanting to play games with her and her friend, other instances. But she still placed importance on her education.

As the city developed into a microcosm of the Civil Rights movement and she got older, she noticed the need for a space for Black people and then started her time as president of the H.L. Neblett Community Center.

Yager said her mother’s involvement as president expanded beyond the walls of the Neblett. She had a hand in Owensboro Black Caucus, helped Wendell Ford in his campaign, and more.

“The one thing that would amaze me is how she would balance the hats she wore, and you never felt like she didn’t have time for you,” Yager said.

She eventually would take her community involvement to another level: serving as city commissioner. When it came time to run for election in 1995, Olive was 45 years old.

The Messenger-Inquirer newspaper reported on Nov. 8, 1995, that Olive earned 49% of the vote in a three-way contest with Dick Moore and Clyde Miller, and won 41 of the city’s 49 precincts.

She had earned 6,457 — more than 2,100 votes ahead of Moore.

“I think that every African American woman can hold her head up high and say, ‘We’ve made an accomplishment here,’” She told the newspaper.

Yager said that was a night of high emotions and anticipation waiting for the counts.

But it marked the start of some hard work to accomplish in Olive’s terms — and not was legislative.

Yager recounted the meetings she watched where her mom would have people speak to her, keeping her composure during tough questions, criticisms and at times racist remarks.

“It’s like what God intended her to do, she was doing it from a young age and she was breaking barriers,” Yager said. “She said ‘I have the opportunity to go to an all-white school, so I’m going to go to an all-white school.’ First Black female commissioner. And neither were done to be the first.”

In her 7 years as Commissioner, Olive was instrumental in the formation of the Neighborhood Alliance program along with the Owensboro Youth Council and other big projects that still stand today, from the early blueprints and decision of downtown’s landscape to the draining on West Parrish.

Olive tried to promote causes for the Black community throughout the city, Yager said. Through her legislation Olive tried to ensure places like the Neblett Center remained funded, while socially she promoted Black homeowners rights, Black businesses and more. 

Toward the end of her term, Olive also voted to stop alcohol sales in the city on Sundays. Yager noted that was one of the decisions that her mom wrestled with and garnered a lot of negative opinions. Even in this instance, Yager noted her mother keeping her composure in the face of change.

Olive’s term came to an end in 2002. The following year she died at the age of 52.

After her death, she was honored with the Heritage Award by the Owensboro Board of Realtors in 2004 along with the NAACP Herman E. Floyd Award. Most recently, she received the Legacy Award from the ATHENA Award ceremony in 2020.

As neighborhoods continue to work in tandem and find ways to fix the ever-evolving problems of crime, drainage and whatever comes tomorrow, be steadfast to know those who laid the path before.

February 18, 2022 | 12:11 am

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