Cora E. Burke, photograph by Cloud Photo, The Nashville Globe, October 12, 1917

“Mrs. Cora E. Burke … has contributed more to Knoxville’s fraternal, spiritual, educational, civic, and social life than the average local woman…. [She] is very popular with all classes of people in Tennessee, and her reputation is generally known all over the continent.”

The Knoxville Negro, 1929

CORA E. BURKE  moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, from Kentucky in the late 1890s, where she quickly became known as one of the city’s most involved residents. Burke was chairman of Knoxville’s Colored Women’s Political League upon its founding in August 1919. At the time, she had already established herself as an educator, teaching in Knoxville schools, and as a community organizer, serving as the chairman for the Colored Woman’s Department at the 1910 Appalachian Exposition (she served as vice-president of the same department at the 1913 National Conservation Exposition). Burke was a devoted leader in the Court of Calanthe, a benevolent society, and a member of the Logan Temple A.M.E. Zion Church. After the ratification of the 19th Amendment, Burke served as an election official for the city’s Fifth Ward, continuing her legacy of community service and activism.

Photograph of Mitchell F. and Cora E. Burke’s home, 801 East Church Avenue, Knoxville, Tennessee, from a scrapbook, courtesy of the Beck Cultural Exchange Center

Burke was also an astute business woman, holding a considerable amount of real estate with her husband, Mitchell F. Burke. Their home at 801 East Clinch Avenue was considered one of Knoxville’s finest. She is buried at Odd Fellows Cemetery.

The Grand Order of the Court of Calanthe

The Grand Order of the Court of Calanthe, the female counterpart to the Knights of Pythias, was once the largest fraternity of Black women in the South. In 1903, influential Nashville surgeon R. F. Boyd organized the state’s Court of Calanthe and served as the group’s grand worthy counselor (GWC) until his death. Knoxville’s Cora E. Burke became the society’s first female GWC, when she was elected as Boyd’s replacement. She held that post until at least the court’s Golden Anniversary in 1953, overseeing a great period of growth for the organization. Notable members included Eudora Boxley, a successful caterer from Nashville, who, in 1961, became the first Black woman to host a televised cooking show, Southern Cooking on WLAC-TV, and Dr. Mattie E. Coleman, a suffragist and one of Tennessee’s first Black female physicians.

Advertisement for the Court of Calanthe, The Nashville Globe, October 12, 1917; note Cora E. Burkes is referenced, serving as the organization’s grand register of deeds

In 1917, The Nashville Globe, a Black-owned and -operated publication, referred to Burke as the “Uncrowned Queen of Tennessee,” citing her progressive ideas and actions. In an address to the Court of Calanthe, for example, Burke plead the case for equality in the face of injustice:

We must pray and pray hard. It was the prayers of our fore-fathers and mothers that brought us from slavery. It will take the prayers of us today to righten the wrongs which are being heaped upon us. We must pray and pray as never before for this one great thing to be wiped from the face of civilization that our people may be allowed to go their way in peace, to feel that God has made all men equal.… We do not want our souls circumscribed. We want the world as a playground for our talents and to dream of stars as other races do.

The Court of Calanthe and its leadership shaped Tennessee’s Black society, and without it, many would not have been empowered to take action in their communities.

See Beck Cultural Exchange Center, Research Archives, “Black Women,” Cora E. Burke, community activist


Elizabeth Crozier “Lizzie” French, photograph, courtesy of Calvin M. McClung Historical...


Mary Wilson McTeer, carte de visite, courtesy of Maryville College“An Equal Suffrage Club was...

WHITE, ELIZA SHAUT (1883-1965)

Eliza Shaut White, photograph, courtesy of Stacey White FerrenMrs. White … is one of the leading...