Lawyer Margaret Burnham was born on December 28, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama to Louis and Dorothy Burnham. She received her B.A. degree in history from Tougaloo College in Tougaloo, Mississippi, and her LL.B. degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1969.
Burnham served as a staff attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., in New York City from 1969 to 1972. Burnham then joined the Roxbury Defenders in Boston and worked there from 1972 to 1974. In 1973, Burnham was admitted to practice law in Massachusetts. In 1974, Burnham co-founded the Boston law firm of Burnham, Stern & Shapiro. In 1977, she was appointed by Governor Michael Dukakis as the first African American female to serve in the Massachusetts judiciary, when she joined the Boston Municipal Court bench as an associate justice where she served until 1983. She was also named executive director at National Conference of Black Lawyers in New York City. In 1985, Burnham was selected as the Bunting Institute Fellow at Radcliffe College. In 1987, Burnham established the Law Office of Margaret Burnham in Boston; and, in 1989, she joined Burnham & Hines as a founding partner while serving as a lecturer for the department of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1993, South African president Nelson Mandela appointed Burnham to serve on an international human rights commission to investigate alleged human rights violations within the African National Congress. Burnham joined the Northeastern University School of Law faculty in 2002, and served as associate professor. She was promoted to professor in 2006.
In 1992, she was named chair of the board of directors for National Center of Afro-American Artists. In 1993, Burnham was elected and served as member of the board of trustees for Old South Meeting House. Burnham also served as a member of the The Algebra Project and for the National Advisory Board for the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe College.
In 1995, she received the Robinson Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Profession by the Women’s Bar Association in Boston, Massachusetts. Burnham was inducted into the YWCA Boston Academy of Women Achievers, in 1996. Burnham received an honorary doctorate degree of laws from Western New England College School of Law in 2000, and was the recipient of an honorary doctorate of education degree from Wheelock College in Boston, in 2002. Burnham received the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association Trailblazer Award in 2008. In 2008, Burnham was awarded a Newhouse Center for the Humanities Fellowship at Wellesley College. In 2009, Burnham was awarded the International Criminal Justice Research Fellowship at Grotius Institute, University of Leiden at The Hague, Netherlands. She was also the recipient of Massachusetts Lawyers’ Weekly Top Women of the Law Award, in 2011. In 2016, she was selected for the Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program. She also received an honorary doctorate degree from Lesley University.
Margaret Burnham was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on November 16, 2018.