Benjamin Henry-Harrison Burgis Jr. made history by becoming the second African American to enlist in the United States Coast Guard as a seaman.
He died on January 14. He was 85.
Burgis was born March 25, 1926, in Philadelphia. He was the youngest of six siblings. He attended Overbrook High School where he ran cross country, and played basketball and football. He enjoyed traveling across the country with his father during the summer months.
Immediately after attending high school, Burgis chose to serve his country by joining the U.S. Armed Forces. He joined the U.S. Coast Guard at a time when Blacks were previously only enlisted as either cooks or servants. As a member of the Coast Guard, his travels spanned the globe to include three out of four oceans of the world: the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian Oceans.
During World War II, Burgis again set his mark in history by earning a Purple Heart. After his vessel was commissioned by the U.S. Navy to join their ranks, he was injured doing battle while aboard the USS Arthur Middleton. After the 2nd World War ended, Burgis returned home to help raise his young family.
Burgis held several prosperous positions throughout his life. He worked as a railway mail clerk on the New York–Chicago Line. After too much time on the road away from his family, he decided to take the test and become a Philadelphia police officer.
After a few years on the force, for the sake of his family, he was no longer to willing to put himself in harm’s way. By using the trade he learned while serving in the military, he changed his profession to that of a stationary engineer, a much safer occupation. Thirty-five years later, he retired from Holmesburg Prison as chief engineer. He also held the title as chief engineer at the Philadelphia International Airport for some time.
During his tenure as a city engineer, Burgis was appointed by the mayor of Philadelphia to the position of building superintendent at the construction site of the African American Museum. Burgis received a citation from Mayor Frank Rizzo for the “ontime” project completion and the grand opening of the country’s second African-American museum.
Burgis was always a hard worker. While working as an engineer, he and his wife Lilly successfully operated a fresh fish market and seafood restaurant for more than six years.
After he retired from the city of Philadelphia, he became the building manager of the Robert Morris building for the next seven years. Again, he retired only to find another position to keep him busy. He worked for five years as a chemist assistant in a research lab. He finally retired for good to enjoy the rest of his life with his family.
Whenever Burgis wasn’t at work, he enjoyed many endeavors. He was a practicing Mason for more than 40 years of his life. To him, photography was more than just a hobby, it was a passionate pursuit.
Burgis always enjoyed good company. He was a great storyteller of life’s events and historic moments. He loved to cook and entertain others. Conversations with him usually included honest advice shared over a good laugh.
Lilly, his wife of 40 years, was his passion, confidant, nurse and best friend. Together, they parented nine children — they had 17 grandchildren and eight grandchildren. Burgis is also survived by his older sister, Roberta Burgis Savage, and other relatives and friends.
Services will be held January 21 at Emmanuel United Methodist Church, 2346 North 17th St. #50. Viewing is at 9 a.m. Services will be held at 11. Burial is in Washington Crossing National Cemetery.
Congleton Funeral Home handled the arrangements.