Charles T. Burns dies founder of Super Pride

April 10, 1991|By Lynda Robinson

Services for Charles Thurgood Burns, chairman of the country's largest black-owned and -operated supermarket chain, will be held at 7 p.m. Friday at the Morgan State University Christian Center, 4307 Hillen Road.

Mr. Burns, who founded the Baltimore chain of Super Pride Markets, died of a heart attack Sunday at his home in White Hall. He was 76.

A first cousin of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Mr. Burns liked to describe himself as "a plain man, basically crude, basically honest," said his younger sister, Juliet Carter.

He was a born entrepreneur who fought racial discrimination for most of his career, never allowing it to defeat his ambitions or spirit.

"He wasn't going to let anybody keep him back," Mrs. Carter said yesterday. "He never gave up."

Born in Baltimore, Mr. Burns got his first taste of the grocery business in a small store his grandfather owned on Dolphin Street. He was about 6 when he started delivering groceries to his grandfather's customers, Mrs. Carter recalled.

In high school and college, he sold vegetables, produce and fish off the back of a cart to earn money. He also promoted dances at Morgan State College, where he played football.

He developed a reputation as a shrewd businessman as the co-owner of a chain of pharmacies. The Hilton Court pharmacies catered to the needs of black consumers at a time when white-owned businesses ignored them.

Mr. Burns was thinking about retiring in 1970 when he was recruited to take over a bankrupt supermarket with a handful of ** employees on East Chase Street. He bought the Super Jet Market, changed its name to Super Pride and set out to prove that a black-owned supermarket could be successful. Within three years, it was -- despite the refusal of some food companies to do business with a black-owned store.

The Super Pride chain eventually grew to seven stores with annual sales reaching $43 million, making it one of the county's top 100 black-owned businesses. The markets employ more than 400 people and rank third in sales among Baltimore-area independent grocers, according to Food World, a trade publication for the retail food industry.

Mr. Burns never forgot his roots or the black customers who patronize his stores. He made Super Pride a sponsor of Black History Month activities. The supermarket chain also supported the Arena Players and the Baltimore Museum of Art and co-sponsored the inaugural performance of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre Foundation of Maryland.

Mr. Burns provided scholarships to several area students, allowing them to continue their educations.

In the mid-1940s, he bought a 320-acre farm in northern Baltimore County where he raised cattle, pigs and various crops. He often invited city schoolchildren to tour the farm.

Mr. Burns' first wife, Myrtle Clarke Burns, died in 1964.

In addition to his sister, Mrs. Carter, Mr. Burns is survived by his wife, Juanita Johnson Burns; two other sisters, Dorothy Randall of Baltimore and Lucille Anderson of Virginia; and several nieces and nephews.

The family suggests contributions to the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association or Morgan State University.

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