His was the textbook “local son makes good” story.
Melvin Burgess Sr. was born on May 23, 1938 to parents Katherine Gilder Burgess and Eddie Burgess. Like so many African-American families of that era in Memphis, hard work, education, faith in God and strong family values stoked the promise of a better life for their children.
Young Melvin graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and entered the United States Air Force. After an honorable discharge, he attended Grambling State College (a historically black institution, now Grambling State University) in Grambling, La. Prior to graduating, Burgess returned to Memphis and completed his bachelor’s degree at Memphis State University (now the University of Memphis).
In April 1962, he and 14 other African Americans completed the Memphis Police Academy basic training. In the midst of an unfolding civil rights firestorm all over the South, the officers were a source of great pride. The total number of black officers on the police force was 27, the highest number in the history of the Memphis Police Department.
The next 30 years on the force saw Burgess excel in his duties and promoted through the ranks until 1992, when the first African American elected mayor, Dr. Willie W. Herenton, made him police director.
His “tough but fair” style of leadership earned the respect of his officers. But his tenure was ended with the fallout of an incident involving pepper spray, a white officer who was fired and a successful lawsuit against Herenton and the City of Memphis.
After leaving the police department, Burgess opened “The Fish Market and Diner,” one of the largest retailers of fresh fish in the city. He also continued his professional career in law enforcement and security, holding such prestigious positions as Tunica, Miss. Sheriff’s Department executive assistant, vice president of security for the Horseshoe Casino and regional vice-president of security and risk management at Caesar’s Entertainment, Inc.
He would often tell loved ones, “I am living the dream.”
Joanna Lopez Sandridge was married to Burgess — “the love of my life” — for 43 years. The two traveled extensively and became socially prominent figures at Southern Heritage Classic and Bayou Classic football events, as well as annual 100 Black Men of Memphis and Kappa Alpha Psi affairs. Burgess held memberships in both organizations.
Burgess was an elder at Parkway Gardens United Presbyterian Church, where he served faithfully until illness prevented him from doing so.
He also is survived by two children: Shelby County Commissioner Melvin Burgess II (Sandra) and Pamela Nelson of Denver, Co.; four grandchildren; and many other loved ones and friends.
Visitation will be on Thursday (July 5) from noon to 8 p.m., with a reception from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Serenity Funeral Home, 1632 Sycamore View Rd. Members of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. will hold a special memorial at 8 p.m..
Funeral services are set for 1 p.m. on Saturday (July 7) at Golden Gate Cathedral at 3240 James Rd.