Nannie Helen Burroughs: a Lifetime of Founding, Fixing, and Uplifting

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Nannie Helen Burroughs’ birthdate is questionable but what we do know is around 1880, in the town of Orange, VA she was born to a formerly enslaved couple. After the death of her Father, Burroughs and her mother moved to Washington DC, where she excelled through high school and graduated with honors. Despite her high achieving high school years Nannie was denied teaching positions in the DC area. Many historians speculate that because of her dark skin and the issues of colorism among elite Black communities of the time, she was denied teaching roles. The only thing more impressive than her academic achievements is her determination to create the life she knew she deserved. Undeterred by being denied teaching jobs she began formulating a plan to create her own Normal School that would educate and train poor, working, Back women as teachers. 

Because she was denied teaching jobs for a short time she worked as an associate editor at The Christian Banner Baptist Newspaper in Philadelphia. She was also one of the founding members of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs along with Mary Church Terell, Ida B. Wells and Frances Harper, which was the first Club to cater to the civil rights and suffragist activities of African American Women. After she moved to Louisville, she founded the Association of Colored Women which provided night classes in business and home economics to African American women. Additionally at that time, Nannie herself began taking business classes at Eckstein Norton University. 

In 1900 she gave a speech entitled “How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping” (read here on Authenticated) at the Virginia National Baptist Convention which lead to the creation of the National Baptist Women’s Convention. This Women’s auxiliary of the NBC spread throughout the country, sparking 12 societies and 1.5 million members by1907. It became the largest organization for Black Women in the U.S. 

Nannie graduated from Eckstein Norton University Business school in 1904 and moved back to DC where she grew up and was once rejected from the job market. Undeterred by originally being denied teaching jobs she began formulating a plan to create her own Normal School in DC that would educate and train poor, working, Back women as teachers. She used all of the experience she had gained from her time away to craft her vision. That same year she became internationally known for giving the keynote address at the First Baptist World Alliance Congress in London. This gave her the recognition she needed to propose her plan for a school to the National Baptist Convention. The organization then purchased six acres of land for the school to be constructed on. 

Nannie Burroughs and others on the steps of the National Training School for women and Girls

Nannie Burroughs and others on the steps of the National Training School for women and Girls

Students on the steps of the National Training School for Women and Girls

Students on the steps of the National Training School for Women and Girls

A typewriter class at the National Training School for Women and Girls

A typewriter class at the National Training School for Women and Girls

Burroughs made it a point to rely solely on the Black community and its resources to fund this school for Black Women. She refused to ask white donors to contribute money for the construction of the building even though famed civil rights activist Booker T. Washington warned her that African Americans would not be able to fund the project. Never the less, Nannie persisted and successfully funded the construction of the National Training School for Women and Girls off small donations from Black Women and children in the community. The school was the first of its kind, offering educational courses for women outside of the traditional Home economics. All students were required to take a Black History course using materials from preeminent scholar Carter G. Woodson and the school itself was run off donations from African American communities and organizations across the country. She served as president of the school until her death in 1961. In 1964 the school was renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School and was turned into an Elementary school. The school became a part of the National Register of Historic Places in 1991. 

In 1920 she founded the National Association of Wage Earners to advocate for domestic workers rights and in 1932 she was appointed by President Hoover to address the “Negro Housing” crisis during the Great Depression. 

On top of all of her educational efforts she was also a champion Black Women’s suffrage. During the early 1900s no women had the right to vote and Black men’s enfranchisement was under attack. The African American community was split between people who believed all efforts should be focused on helping Black Men and people who believed Black Women’s right to vote was just as important. Burroughs believed that Black Women having the vote would advance the entire race. She worked toward this her whole life. Nannie Helen Burroughs was a determined activist who founded successful organization after organization to educate, empower, and enfranchise Black Women. This Black feminist icon worked until the day she died to better the Black Community and left a lasting mark that can still be felt today. 


Helpful Vocabulary:

Colorism refers to discrimination based on skin shade rather than race. Unlike racism, colorism works within racial communities to oppress people with darker skin tones and to elevate those with a fairer skin tone.

Normal School refers to schools in the 1800 and 1900s that specifically taught teacher education. Students graduating from Normal School would go on to teach anything from elementary school to high school.

Andreia WardlawComment