Looking at Barbara Burnam, it’s hard to believe the 75-year-old woman has much influence and control over her community.
However, for the past 50 years, “Miss Barbara” Burnam has served as block captain for the area where she lives on Boyer Street between Locust Avenue and Woodlawn Street. Over those 50 years, the mother of three has spent a lot of her time volunteering and keeping the community in line.
“If I see the drug dealers over there on the corner, and I get sick of it, I go over there and tell them to go,” Burnam said. “They listen to me. I don’t give them a choice.”
As a former employee of Pastorius School, Burnam got to know multiple generations of the community. “They listen because I’ve been around here so long. I know the mothers, the fathers. It’s just one big family,” Burnam said.
“Miss Barbara” is a well-known name among the community. To this day, Karen Burnam, one of her daughters, said she is still known as “Miss Barbara’s daughter.” Although the title didn’t always make it easy for her to find a boyfriend, Burnam said the reputation always made her feel safe.
One of her fondest memories of her mother is the time she watched her break up a gang war right on the corner of their block. “They was throwing bottles and using sticks and stuff, and she just ran right out there in the middle of it,” Burnam said. “They actually stopped fighting.”
This was one of many times that “Miss Barbara” put an end to a violent situation.
She said one of the biggest keys to keeping members of the community out of trouble is just lending an ear to listen. “They need somebody to listen. You’ve got to work with the children,” said Burnam, who will often let community members visit her on her porch to just hang out and talk.
While Burnam still loves her role in the community, as she grows older she said she’s becoming ready to pass her duties along. “I love these kids, but it’s someone else’s turn now,” Burnam said.
However, Burnam said she will always be there for members of the community who need her. “If I was to have $1 million, I don’t think I could go buy a house anywhere else,” Burnam said. “Why would I leave what I have around here? I’m the only one these kids listen to.”