We live in a society these days where people are so busy that they don’t take the time to find out who their neighbors are. And sometimes even if you get to know your neighbors, and you spend a lot of time with them over the years having picnics together, your children growing up together, everyday conversations with them, do you really get to know them?
My experience this past year has been that I have lived next to my neighbor for 37 years and never really knew her, like I thought I did. We moved on South Main Street in 1967 and to the south of us were the nicest people, the Burrows. Violet Burrows was a widow, her husband Moncure had passed away in 1964. The Burrow’s had one daughter and one granddaughter who would come and stay the summer. They lived in Harrisburg, Pa., just up from the Capital and enjoyed the smaller community during summer vacations.
It is the daughter, Pauline (Polly) Elizabeth Burrows whom I thought I knew all about. But upon her death in February 2004, I discovered I knew very little about this lady that I had lived beside for many years.
Pauline was born in Troy, Pa., the only daughter of Moncure and Violet Burrows. They moved to Elmira where Mr. Burrows worked for the Star Gazette. Polly grew up on the east side, graduated from Elmira Free Academy and went on to Elmira College, majoring in music. In her scrapbook were many articles of piano concerts she was featured in, listing her as a very fine talented pianist. She also sang in choirs, like the YMCA Colored Girls’ Glee Club. The article states that this organization was the first of its kind and that the girls displayed a particular aptitude for the work. Ms. Burrows was listed as giving a piano solo also.
Pauline Burrows went on to graduate from Elmira College in June of 1931 with the honor and distinction of being the first African-American female to graduate from Elmira College, the oldest college in America for women. Graduating with an Associate Degree in music, Pauline went on to study at Eastman School of Music and Ithaca College where she received her Bachelor of Science degree in music. Pauline trained to be a solo pianist and had great success giving solo concerts in Tompkins Hall and the Elmira College Chapel. She also studied voice and violin and had the honor of performing at the White House with the Ithaca College Choir. She talked about her trip to the White House once, telling us that they had the "run of the White House." However, Pauline and another African- American woman in the choir were not allowed to stay at the same hotel as the rest of the choir (who were all Caucasian). And when the cab dropped them off for rehearsal at the other hotel, he would not drop them off at the main entrance, but instead he stopped "short" and let them out.
Due to the Depression, Pauline never fully realized her musical potential. After college, she went to work in Philadelphia and lived at the YWCA, which ran a boarding house for single women. One of her jobs in Philly was, supervising women knitting clothing, although at this point, Pauline didn’t know how to knit! The opportunity to work at the Capital in Harrisburg, Pa. led her to move there. It was in Harrisburg that Pauline met up an old friend whom she had grown up with in Elmira, Harold Hurst. They were married in 1937. "Doc", as Harold was called, was actively engaged in the practice of Podiatry from 1937 to 1971. Harold and Pauline have one daughter, Jill Hurst, who grew up in Harrisburg, spent her summers in Elmira at the grandparent’s house on South Main Street and graduated from Elmira College.
Pauline lived through World Wars I & II, the Great Depression, traveling down South before the Civil Rights Movement, several floods (including the 1972 flood), having a daughter when she was 44 (after 20 years of marriage), the race to the moon, massive changes in technology (some of which she never used, like a microwave oven) and other events including the normal ups-n-downs of daily life. She grew up when cars were not so prevalent and was used to walking to get where she wanted to go. She loved to work outdoors in the yard. Although she was a petite lady, like her mother, she was a physically strong person most of her life.
After retiring, Pauline moved back to South Main Street, Southport in 1981, the home that had been her parents. There she enjoyed walking her dog and tending to the yard and her flowers.
Harold Hurst passed away in 1992 and Pauline Hurst, after a stay at Elcor Nursing, passed away in February 2004.
I will never cease to marvel and ponder that I never knew Pauline "Polly" was the first African-American to graduate from Elmira College, and that she sang and played the piano. Sadly to say, we never heard her do either one. A very private person she was, but a wonderful neighbor, just the same. I will cherish the times we had together.
Pauline’s Elmira College diploma and a scrapbook filled with several newspaper articles, photos, and memorabilia have been donated to the Elmira College archives by her daughter Jill Ann Hurst-Wahl where they will be preserved for posterity.
Virginia WHEELER McElroy, Town of Southport Historian
Source: Articles from Pauline Hurst scrapbook
Her daughter, Jill Hurst-Wahl