Douglas Block Stories: Honoring Earl Carnegie “Doc” Burnette (1907-1976)

 One of the important pieces of the puzzle from the ‘Revitalization Rocky Mount Puzzle Box’ is the historic Douglas Block named for Dr. Junious Douglas, an African-American pharmacist. The Douglas Block was home to shops, restaurants, entertainment centers, and medical services owned and operated by African-Americans. Today it is home to people who believe in the revitalization of the historic downtown district and are doing business where in spirit, the original black community will always be remembered

We have Di Riceratore to thank for research that helps us pay tribute to an important and distinguished family in the community. We honor Earl Carnegie “Doc” Burnette.  Come and stand with me on the sidewalk in front of The Prime Smokehouse, and look kiddie-corner across the street to the Burnette Building, part of the Douglas Block restoration. You have to let the scene come to you, the privilege of looking back at a time and place that is integral to the Rocky Mount story. With eyes to see, you are looking at the Burnette Drug Company established by Baker Burnette (1878-) who obtained a medical degree but worked as a pharmacist. His nephew, Earl Carnegie “Doc” Burnette, who we honor in this post, worked in the Burnette Drug store early in his life and later became the owner, and in the 1960s co-owned the business with Fred S. Biggs.

Earl Burnette was born and raised on the family farm near Hamilton and Oak City, in Martin County. Earl’s father sent him to live with an uncle in Rocky Mount to obtain the best available education. Earl was in the first graduating class at Booker T. Washington High School (established 1927.)Rocky Mount at that time was in a boom phase, driven by a profitable tobacco market and the Atlantic Coastline Railroad Emerson Shops.

Following in the footsteps of his two uncles, Earl attended college, earning a BA at Shaw University. Only 5’7″ and 168 pounds, nonetheless, he enjoyed a reputation as a powerful center on the football team. He then obtained a Masters degree from NYU. He pursued further education at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Meharry Medical College in Nashville, TN. Though he apparently did not obtain a medical license, he acquired the nickname, “Doc.”

Mr. Burnette also pursued a teaching career. He was on the faculty at Patillo High School in Tarboro (1933-9), and in Rocky Mount at Parker Junior High and Booker T. Washington High School. He coached football at both Patillo and BTW, and won a championship while at Patillo.

Mr. Burnette married Juanita Exum (1920-2005.) also a teacher. Juanita met Earl when she began teaching at the former Lincoln Elementary School in Rocky Mount in the late 1940s In her later years, she taught at Baskerville Elementary in Rocky Mount. They had one child, Francine Elaine Burnett who continued the family tradition of education obtaining degrees from George Washington University (BA Speech-Language Pathology, 1979) and the University of North Carolina (MA, 1980.)

Earl Burnette died on March 15, 1976, after an illness. His service was at Metropolitan Baptist church, where he had been active in leadership roles for decades. Mr. Burnette is buried in Rocky Mount’s Northeastern Cemetery, next to his wife.

If you have further information about “Doc” Burnette, please add it in the comment section below for everyone’s enjoyment. Thank you.

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About Stepheny Forgue Houghtlin

Stepheny Forgue Houghtlin grew up in Evanston, IL. and is a graduate of the University of Kentucky. She is an author of two novels: The Greening of a Heart and Facing East. She lives, writes and gardens in NC. Visit her: Stephenyhoughtlin.com
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10 Responses to Douglas Block Stories: Honoring Earl Carnegie “Doc” Burnette (1907-1976)

  1. Jan Arnold says:

    Mr. Earl Burnette was also a biology teacher at RMSH the first year BTW and RMSH combined. I had him in the 10th grade. Boy did he love to talk. I think that is what made him a great interesting teacher.

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    • Thanks for this Jan. I am having a time with the spelling of Mr. Earl’s last name. It appears as Burnett, which is how I spelled it, but also as Burnettte as you have spelled it. What to do?

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      • Francine Burnett Edwards says:

        I am his daughter, Francine Burnett Edwards. Our family has always spelled it without the final “E”. Thank you for this thoughtful tribute to my father. I live in the Atlanta Area and would love to share stories with you as I have fond memories from the corner of our family drug store. Please send me a email and I will correspond with you.

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      • Delighted that the post reached you, Francine and that you have taken the time to leave this comment. We will correspond.Looking forward to listening to your memories. THANK YOU!

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  2. Norma Hunter Alston says:

    Thank you so much for this article. Douglas Block was an important part of my youth. I went there at least once a week. I fondly remember Mr. Burnette and the drugstore, especially going for a special milkshake for my step father. Also, I lived a couple of houses down from the Burnettes.

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    • Thank you, Norma, for taking time to comment. Would you be willing to meet with me there in the area and tell me more about those days…”milkshakes from the drugstore.” I want to continue writing Douglas Block Stories and could use your memories to help me do that. Hope you will say yes. I see that you have spelled Burnette, the 2nd comment from one who knew him. I am assured that either spelling is acceptable since Burnett was used too. I may edit the post to reflect your knowledge of him if this continues to happen. Thank You! Let’s meet for Sweet Tea at the Smokehouse! Stepheny

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  3. Francine Burnett Edwards says:

    I’d also like to correct and clarify information posted in the article: In the school year 1967-68, my father was one of the first Black faculty members at RMSH. Before fully integrating the school student populations, the school board gradually desegregated the schools by initially integrating the faculty. My mother did not begin her teaching career at the age of 18. She met my father when she began teaching at the former Lincoln Elementary School in Rocky Mount in the late 1940s and she never taught at Patillo High School. They were married in 1949 and I can attest to the fact that I was indeed their only child. My MS in Speech-Language Pathology was awarded in 1979 by UNC-Chapel Hill.

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  4. Emily M. Ballance says:

    Although I didn’t have a class with Mr. Burnett, he was my homeroom teacher during the 1969-1970 school year, so I saw him every morning. Loved him. He was a constant – always upbeat and positive and got my day off to a good start. Francine, your dad was a wonderful person and I am so happy to learn more about his life. Stepheny, I am a friend of Mary Kemp Mebane, grew up on Grace Street and Park Place near the Villa Place area. I am planning to attend the Villa Place events this weekend and look forward to meeting you. Thank you so much for the work you are doing to preserve the personal stories of the people of Rocky Mount.

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    • Thank you for taking the time to add this comment to the post, which makes it more interesting. Be sure to catch me Friday evening. Looking forward to meeting you! Maybe you will add a story of your own at the end of the six “kids” on stage telling tales. THANK YOU for your kind words about the blog, Main Street Rocky Mount. Having a wonderful time with all of it. Now I have a new friend….you!

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