Where we got our name
Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary School was dedicated May 4, 1980. It was named after former school teacher Ms. Elizabeth Pfeiffer and famed composer Mr. Harry T. Burleigh.
Ms. Elizabeth Pfeiffer
Elizabeth Pfeiffer began teaching in the Erie Public School system in 1911. She had originally wanted to be a gym teacher, but her mother helped her realize that this may not be as enjoyable for her as an older woman as it would be as a young woman. So Elizabeth began teaching first grade. Her teaching career would span 52 years. During her time as a teacher, Ms. Pfeiffer saw a great deal of change throughout history and advances in technology. She experienced the coming of the first automobiles, the airplane, radio, television, plastics, and computers. She also lived through two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Korean Conflict. Ms. Pfeiffer rode on one of Erie's first autos and witnessed the journey of the first man on the moon.
She began her career in the building that is now known as Irving Elementary School. Back then it was only know as a number just like all the other schools in the area. Before long she was transferred to Old No. 12, which was renamed Wayne School. She remained there until her retirement from full time reaching in 1956. Ms. Pfeiffer continued to work as a substitute teacher in the Erie School District for another 7 years.
Ms. Pfeiffer attributes her success in the classroom to the parents of her children. "Once I had 80 percent of my students who did not speak English at home," she said. "Their parents were immigrants who thought that education was the most important thing for their children to have. They were Polish, Russian, Romanian, German, Fins, and Italians. They wanted their children to have respect and to be disciplined whenever necessary. They wanted their children to do well and sometimes a teacher had to lay it on."
Ms. Pfeiffer believes there is a difference between today's television children and yesterday's radio children. "With radio they had to visualize. It isn't good to have everything visualized for you." For that reason, Ms. Pfeiffer read her youngsters prose and poetry everyday.
Harry Thacker Burleigh
Harry Thacker Burleigh, singer, composer, son of a school janitress, and grandson of an ex-slave turned lamp lighter, was born in Erie, Pennsylvania, on December 2, 1866. The early years of Harry's life are fragmented but it is clear that his grandfather and mother were keys to his development. Harry's grandfather, Hamilton Waters, was a slave in Sommerset County, Maryland, until age and near-blindness rendered him useless to his owner. Waters eventually settled in Erie where he found employment as a lamp-lighter, town crier, and then presser of clothes. At an early age, Harry accompanied Hamilton on his lamp-lighting rounds. It was during this time that his grandfather taught Harry the plantation melodies of his own young manhood.
After Harry's father died, his mother found work as a janitress at the school she wanted to teach at but was unable to. While Harry was helping his mother with her cleaning duties, they would sing the songs his grandfather had taught him. His mother later found work at the home of Mrs. Elizabeth Russell, a wealthy music lover who frequently invited prominent artists from the concert stage to her home. Harry would stand outside her home during the dead of winter and listen to the celebrated guests perform. When Mrs. Russell heard of this, she hired Harry to work in her home. This allowed Harry to be exposed to some of the greatest singers of the late 1800's.
Harry discovered that he had a voice, and between school and part time work he would find time to sing at some of the local churches. At the age of 26 Harry was awarded a tuition free four year scholarship offered by the national Conservatory of Music in New York. It was during his time studying here that Harry began singing in the Choir of St. Phillips Colored Episcopal Church, one of the cities wealthiest and most prestigious institutions. Harry sang there for 52 years. It was at St. George's that Burleigh began to arrange for choral and solo voice the song that he had first heard his grandfather sing. This, although not an accurate picture of Harry's total output, has won Harry a lasting place in the history of American music. "Deep River" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" are two of Harry Burleigh's more famous compositional efforts.
During his career, Burleigh wrote and arrange over 90 songs, both sacred and secular, and when his funeral was held at St. George's, his friends like W.C. Handy and the full choirs sang "Deep River", "Swing Low Sweet Chariot", and "I Know de Lord Has Laid His Hands on Me". Harry Thacker Burleigh, singer, composer, arranger, accompanist, scholar, and grandson of ex-slave was one of the outstanding song writers of the early twentieth century. He finally gained some of the recognition he deserved in his home town of Erie, PA. when, in May 1980, an elementary school, Pfeiffer-Burleigh, was co-named in his honor.