Emma Lee McBurnette, 69, wworked for families and a drycleaner

Posted: August 08, 2014

SOME PHILLY storekeepers winced when they saw Emma Lee McBurnette coming through the door.

Emma Lee had a sharp eye for bargains, and no patience for what she considered overpricing.

"That's not worth the price," she might say about an item. "I won't pay it."

More often than not, Emma Lee got her way. The merchants saw the error of their ways and adjusted the prices accordingly.

And far from wanting to ban Emma Lee from their stores, most merchants realized that she was right more often than not and willingly amended their larcenous ways.

Emma Lee McBurnette, a proud daughter of the South who grew up doing farmwork in South Carolina, came to Philadelphia and worked for several families and a dry-cleaning firm, died Friday after a long battle with cancer. She was 69 and lived in the Carroll Park section of West Philadelphia.

Actually, Emma Lee was fortunate to be alive. As a teenager, she was involved in a horrific car accident that claimed the life of her sister, Sadie Bell Frinks, and put her in a coma for several weeks.

They were in a car that ran out of control and struck a tree, her family said.

Shortly after her recovery, Emma Lee moved to Philadelphia to live with an aunt. She worked as a baby-sitter and housecleaner for families, then took a job with Cooper's Cleaners.

"She was a go-getter," said her son Voris Weldon McBurnette. "She never let any obstacles stand in her way. She would go to the ends of the earth for her family. She was a perfectionist. She held everything to a high standard."

In 1978, Emma Lee married Walter McBurnette, who did janitorial work at Chester A. Arthur School and fought as an amateur boxer in Philadelphia under the name "Baby Kid Chocolate" in his youth. He died in 1986.

Emma Lee was born in Longs, S.C., the youngest of the six children of Frank Tillman and Elizabeth Gause Frinks. She grew up on the family's 30-acre farm that raised hogs and chickens. It later grew tobacco.

Farmwork was tough but, her son said, she was proud that she had done it. "She made me work on the farm to show me what it was like," Voris said.

The family farm was part of a successful lawsuit filed by thousands of black farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for shortchanging African-American farmers and denying them loans on the basis of race. About 15,000 farmers received cash payments as part of the settlement in 1999.

Emma Lee was a devoted mother and grandmother. She was an outstanding cook whose specialty was a chicken and noodle dish the family called "chicken pastry."

She enjoyed traveling back to South Carolina to visit relatives. She also spent time with her son, an educator in Raleigh, N.C.

Besides her son, she is survived by another son, James Godfrey "Garfield" Frinks; a daughter, Kathy McBurnette; two sisters, Eva Bell Williams and Lillie Mae Livingston; and two grandsons.

Services: Noon Saturday at St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Longs, S.C.

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