Leesburg resident Gladys Burke does not have her office for ADJ Enterprises just anywhere, and if a location has a thousand words to tell, the Barrister Building would be it.
In 1994, the building’s owner told Burke he had space available when she wanted to relocate her promotional products business. For three years, she had worked out of her home, then in 1986 she relocated to a site on Liberty Street before moving to the downtown Leesburg building. At that time, she didn't know about the coincidences she would encounter there.
"It turned out to be a great location. It’s easy to find right in the fork," said Burke, referring to the intersection of Market Street and Edwards Ferry Road.
Burke’s business is located near where the late Marie Medley-Howard owned a beauty shop, now the parking lot for the Barrister Building. "She was one of the few black business owners of the time," Burke said about Medley-Howard, who was born in Leesburg in 1900 and died in New Haven, Conn., in 1992, though her heart was said to still be in Leesburg. She owned the shop in the 1940s and 1950s.
Medley-Howard was the founding president of the Loudoun County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was formed in 1940 as the Middleburg-Leesburg Branch. Later, the branch became the Loudoun County Branch, and did not open its first office until 2000 at the Barrister Building with the members of NAACP continuing to work for equality.
"From a historical standpoint, I know that it must have been so much harder for her to own a business in her time than it is for me today," said Burke. "It gives me inspiration because I have so many more tools at my disposal than she had. I probably don’t face the same kind of racism."
MEDLEY-HOWARD lived during the segregation period when blacks typically worked in service and labor jobs. She was one of the few black business owners of the time.
"Here’s Marie Medley, she’s going to have her own business," Burke said. "We operate in the same realm. We see things we want to do. When I started my own business, … [I thought] why can’t I do it? There’s no reason I couldn’t do it."
Even so, being a black woman in business is not Burke’s focus, nor is it for her customers, she said. Instead, she focuses on quality and service for her promotional products. She develops the products for businesses, organizations and particular events, placing the logos on anything from the common mug to clocks, picture frames and coasters.
"She’s here all of the time, making sure her customers are taken care of," said Purcellville resident George Hardy, executive director of the National Terrazzo & Mosaic Association, also located in the Barrister Building. "We buy a lot of our promotional items from her. She’s always been knowledgeable, helpful and … [devoted] to customer service."
"I learn something with every interaction," said Burke, who calls herself a "professional student." "I’m always learning stuff every day. I can’t rest on my laurels because the industry changes so much. I have to learn all kinds of things, and I have to keep up."
Burke’s interest in learning is something Medley-Howard also had. Medley-Howard believed education was the key to civil rights and lectured those who came into her beauty shop not only about civil rights but also about deportment and proper dress, as stated in "The Essence of the People I."
"If people don’t have their history, it’s like they don’t exist," Burke said. "To ensure our history is told and recognized, then the members of that group have to be active in it. You can’t expect others to tell your history."
Bill Anatol, chief financial operating officer for ADJ Enterprises, agreed. "You have to know where you come from in order to know where you’re going," he said. "It’s a good thing to get into [history] to correct what’s wrong. Let the truth be told."
AS A CHILD, Burke began reading fiction and history books, realizing then that education was important, as well as being a well-rounded person, she said. At one point, she focused on black history.
"Coming out of that phase, I’ve always been proud of who I am," Burke said. "I know my history. I understand my history. I can put it in perspective. I think that’s from reading."
Burke’s mother Mattie C. Pinckney encouraged Burke to read. At the same time, Pinckney wanted Burke to put the books away to learn at least one "good housewife" skill, Burke said. She told her, "But Mom, I’m going to be a writer. I don’t need that stuff."
In her high-school memoir, Burke said she wanted to be a writer, a lawyer or own her own business. She graduated in 1979 from Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C., with a major in English and a minor in sociology. Her studies give evidence that she likes both to be alone and to be around people, she said. She began writing poetry in high school, worked for one year in broadcasting before starting her own business and still has plans to be a novelist. She received her broadcasting license in 1982.
"The broad thing is I have an interest in almost everything," Burke said.
As a child and teen-ager, Burke picked cotton, not a "painful experience" for her, she said, adding, "It’s not where I was. It’s where I am. … Like our history, it’s something I went through."
Burke spent a "limited time" in the cotton fields by the time she was 5 years old, she said. "My Mom lovingly dragged me on her sack sometimes as she picked," she said. "Other times I walked the rows with her as she picked and I constantly talked. Sometimes I was left playing alone at the ends of the rows until the pickers returned. I guess back then that was what was necessary if your babysitter was a no-show."
When Burke was about 10 years old, she wanted to do as her mother did, so Pinckney gave her a smaller sack to use for picking.
"I had a lot of hard, manual labor jobs when I was young. I always knew that wouldn't be my adult life. … It’s not something I’m embarrassed by," said Burke, who grew up in St. Matthews, S.C., where her mother still lives. Burke moved to Leesburg in 1980.
As for Pinckney, she was a "brilliant woman. I probably got my love of education from her," Burke said, adding that Pinckney had other jobs, including working as an automobile line assembler and for an attorney. "She’s a very proud woman and always stressed education for us."
Medley-Howard stressed the same thing. She attended Madame C.J. Walker’s School of Cosmetology in Washington, D.C. before opening her beauty shop near her childhood home. Walker is the nation’s first female self-made millionaire, Burke said about another of her inspirations, since knowing about a successful black woman showed her that she, too, could succeed.
"I lived vicariously through the characters I read about. Why can’t I do that?" Burke said.
THE LOUDOUN COUNTY Chamber of Commerce named Burke winner of the 2002 Small Business of the Year. The year before, she received the Marie Medley-Howard Award, which the NAACP gives out annually to Loudoun County residents who show a long history of dedication to community service and civil rights.
Medley-Howard "would have been proud," said Burke, a member of NAACP since the early 1980s.
"Gladys is a marvelous young women and I’m extremely proud of her and how she carries herself," said Ashburn resident Irene Bobich, who used to get her hair done at Medley-Howard’s shop as a small girl before Medley-Howard married and moved to Connecticut with her husband in the 1950s. "When I used to go there, my father had to sit in the chair and hold me."
Bobich called Medley-Howard "Aunt Ree" and went to NAACP meetings with her. "Her heart was always in Leesburg and … in the Loudoun County NAACP. She encouraged me to get involved," she said. "She talked to me and schooled me all of my life."
Anatol said when Burke told him about the coincidences of the Barrister Building, "It means Gladys is destined for great things," he said.
Burke and her husband Clarence "Rocky" Burke have three sons and one daughter. In the mid-1980s, Burke changed the business’s name using the first initials of her sons before her daughter was born. The business was previously called Small Business Advertising.
Burke is a member of the black history committee of The Friends of the Thomas Balch Library, which was established in 2001 in Leesburg. She also is a member of the Loudoun County Commission on Women, appointed by the Board of Supervisors three years ago and is a past six-year member of the Loudoun Education Foundation.