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Honoring Black History Month: Mary P. Burrill

Mary P. Burrill

Throughout Black History Month, we’ll be highlighting historic Black Emersonians who, over the past century, have broken new ground and planted the seeds of justice through their contributions to the arts and communication.


Alumna Mary P. Burrill was an early 20th-century African American playwright who taught and inspired many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. The first woman of color to graduate from Emerson, Mary wrote plays about the Black experience and the Black elite, speaking against lynching, advocating for birth control, and publishing in radical journals like Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Review and The Liberator.

Her best-known plays include The Other Wise Man (1905), They That Sit in Darkness (1919), and Aftermath (1919). She graduated from Emerson College (then known as the Emerson College of Oratory) in 1904. A beloved teacher of English, speech, and drama, she returned to her hometown of Washington, DC, to teach high school until 1944.

Lucy Diggs Slowe
Lucy Diggs Slowe, Mary Burrill’s partner.

While teaching, she met Lucy Diggs Slowe, an English teacher from Baltimore who would later become the dean of women at Howard University, and the couple lived together for 25 years until Slowe’s death.

The Mary Burrill Scholarship was established in 2002 in Mary’s name to promote and support diversity at the College. The scholarship is awarded to students in the incoming freshmen class from a diverse and/or economically disadvantaged background.

Explore Resources for Students of Color at Emerson → 

Learn more about LGBTQ+ life at Emerson → 

Give to the Mary Burrill Scholarship for Diversity at Emerson → 

The photo of Lucy Diggs Slowe originally was posted as the lead photo. We apologize for the error.

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