Nannie Helen Burroughs
May 2, 1879 – May 20, 1961
Notable: Educator & Activist
Nannie Helen Burroughs was born in Orange, Virginia to John and Jennie Burroughs. Sources offer conflicting details about Burroughs’ parents and early life. Her mother was born a slave and her father might have been as well though some sources state that he had been born free. When Burroughs was around four years old, her mother relocated with her and her sister to Washington, D.C. Burroughs’ father died when she was quite young but it’s unclear if this occurred before and prompted the move to D.C. Or if her mother left her father and relocated to D.C. after which he died.
Burroughs attended M Street High School through which she met Mary Church Terrell and Anna Julia Cooper both of whom would have a tremendous impact on her development. She was a good student and graduated with honors but was unable to secure a teaching position at the city’s public schools or with the federal government. Her race was the primary reason for her being turned down for positions in general but it’s also believed that her dark complexion may have led to her also being discriminated against by Washington’s Black elite.
She eventually found work in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at the Christian Banner, the National Baptist Convention’s paper. Burroughs returned to D.C. and received a high score on the city’s civil service exam but was still turned down for positions as a public school teacher. The rejection did not discourage her. Instead, she worked various odd jobs to support herself while continuing to pursue her goal of teaching. She relocated to Louisville, Kentucky to accept a position with the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention.
While living in Louisville for a little over a decade, Burroughs worked as a bookkeeper and editorial secretary at the Foreign Mission Board. She gave a speech entitled, “How the Sisters Are Hindered from Helping”, at the 1900 National Baptist Convention. The speech brought her national attention and led the organization to establish the Women’s Convention to address the needs and concerns of its women. Burroughs would serve as the group’s corresponding secretary for 48 years and then the remainder of her life as president. Under her guidance membership grew to over one million within a few years.
In addition to addressing the religious, political, and social needs of women, the Woman’s Convention also became a resource for educational training. The insights gained from the organization in combination with her personal experiences inspired Burroughs to pitch the idea of a school for girls. With the approval and support of the National Baptist Convention, Burroughs began working on making her vision for the school a reality.
Instead of relying on donations from large and/or wealthy White benefactors, Burroughs primarily raised funds for the school through small donations from within the Black community, especially from Black women. The National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls opened at 601 50th Street NE in Washington, D.C. Burroughs served as the school’s first president, a position she would hold for the rest of her life. Under her guidance, Burroughs and the faculty developed a curriculum that focused on equipping students with vocational and professional skills that they could utilize to independently support themselves.
The school was established at a time when many cities still had few schools that were open to teaching Black students, let alone females, at the high school or junior college level. And those schools that did accept Black students often limited coursework to vocational studies. Offering a wider range of courses which included a classical education was intended to provide students with more options for employment beyond domestic and laundry work. Although the school was founded by a religious organization its curriculum was secular and welcomed students of all faiths.
Burroughs was active with other organizations and endeavors besides her work with the National Baptist Convention, its subsidiaries, and the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls. She was an early member and some sources say a co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Her heavy involvement with the Republican Party supported her fervent belief in women’s suffrage as a potential tool to guard against racial and sex discrimination. She also campaigned against lynching, was an active member of the NAACP, and lobbied to memorialize Frederick Douglass’ home.
Nannie Helen Burroughs never married or had children. A few years after her passing the school she founded was renamed in her honor and became a National Historic Landmark in 1991.
- “Burroughs, Nannie Helen.” 2020. Encyclopedia.com. October 5, 2020. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/burroughs-nannie-helen.
- Jackson, Errin. 2007. “Nannie Helen Burroughs (1883-1961).” Blackpast. March 27, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/burroughs-nannie-helen-1883-1961/.
- Lewis, Jone Johnson. 2019. “Nannie Helen Burroughs Advocated for Self-Sufficiency for Black Women.” ThoughtCo. March 7, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/nannie-helen-burroughs-biography-3528274.
- “Nannie Helen Burroughs.” n.d. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Accessed October 18, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/people/nannie-helen-burroughs.htm.
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