Sarah Burke, pioneering lawyer

March 20, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Sarah Rosenberg Burke, one of the University of Maryland School of Law's first women graduates who later taught citizenship to many immigrants, died Thursday of heart failure at the home of her daughter in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she had lived since 1988.

One of her early professional colleagues, Jeanette Rosner Wolman, said of her: "She was a feminist and worked hard for women's rights."

That included helping organize the few women lawyers in the state in the 1920s.

Mrs. Burke tried in 1919 to gain admittance to the University of Maryland School of Law, but was turned down because, she was told, the school had no restrooms for women.

A year later, after that problem was resolved through arrangements with University Hospital across the street from the law school, she was admitted.

In 1923, she became one of the school's first women graduates.

The year of her graduation, she and Joseph Burke were married, she passed the Maryland bar examination and the young couple began practicing law.

Mrs. Wolman, a Northwest Baltimore resident who is now 91, recalled that "in those days women could only take courses in the night school." Mrs. Wolman graduated from the Maryland law school in 1924.

Three years later, Mrs. Burke, Mrs. Wolman and five other women in the Maryland bar -- Henrietta Stonestreet, Ida Kloze, Adelaide Lindenberg, Goldie Miller and Helen Sherry -- met to establish the Women Lawyers' Association of Maryland.

Their reason: for "the purpose of promoting fraternalism and an exchange of ideas."

Mrs. Burke remained active with the association until she retired to Florida.

Their attempts to be accepted by their male colleagues in the bar would not succeed until 1957, when Mrs. Wolman became the first woman to be admitted to the Bar Association of Baltimore City.

The Womens' Lawyer Association later became the Women's Bar Association of Baltimore City and is now the Women's Bar Association of Maryland.

"Mrs. Burke was very personable, and we worked well together with the association," said Mrs. Wolman, who retired in 1991 after practicing law for 67 years.

Mrs. Burke was born and reared on West North Avenue, where her parents operated a grocery store.

She was a 1917 graduate of Western High School, and after attending Goucher College for one year, left in 1918 and went to work in the library of a predecessor of the Baltimore

News-American before entering law school.

"In those days, you only needed one year of college to qualify for law school," said her daughter, Ellen B. LaVan, "and she later went back and earned her bachelor's degree from Goucher in 1928."

She gave up the practice of law in the 1930s when she and her husband decided to start a family.

During World War II, Mrs. Burke taught citizenship classes to adult immigrants in city schools. Later, she continued to teach privately.

"There was an endless parade of people into our home, all colors, all shapes and sizes. We had survivors of the Holocaust who were very poor but desirous of being assimilated and becoming Americans. She taught these students more than citizenship but how to be comfortable living in this country," said her daughter.

Mrs. Burke made her home on Eutaw Place for many years with her husband, who was a well-known bibliophile. He died in 1968.

Services will be held today in Fort Lauderdale. Her ashes will be interred in June in the Hebrew Friendship Cemetery in East Baltimore.

Besides her daughter, survivors include two grandsons; two nephews; and two nieces.

The family suggested memorial donations to Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson 21204.

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