Born in Orange, Virginia, in 1879 to formerly enslaved parents, Nannie Helen Burroughs moved to Washington, D.C. at five years of age where her mother Jennie Poindexter Burroughs hoped to find employment and to educate her children. Her father, John Burroughs, a Baptist preacher and farmer, had died. In 1883 Nannie Burroughs attended high school, the M Street School (Now Dunbar High School), and graduated in 1896. This is when she met Mary Church Terrell and Anna J. Cooper who became her mentors in life.
She was turned down for a teaching position in Washington D.C. despite a high score on the civil service exam; and, for a short while, she worked as associate editor at The Christian Banner, a Baptist newspaper in Philadelphia. She helped to establish the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs in 1896. She worked part-time for the new National Baptist Convention (NBC) Foreign Mission Board, and when the NBC moved its offices to Louisville, Kentucky in 1898, she took a full-time job with the corresponding secretary, Lewis G. Jordan.
In Louisville, she founded a club, the Association of Colored Women, which began offering night classes in business and home economics. She began studying business at the recently opened industrial school, Eckstein Norton University, in Cane Springs near Louisville. The university's president, Charles H. Parrish was the pastor for Louisville's Calvary Baptist Church and president of the Executive Board of the General Association of Negro Baptists in Kentucky. The faculty included Mary Virginia Cook (who married Rev. Parrish in 1898), Alice P. Kelley, Minnetta B. James, Cornelia Burk and Hattie A. Gibbs of the Oberlin Conservatory. Amanda V. Nelson was Matron (see more at Daniel Buxton's "African American Education in Bullitt County").
In 1900 at an annual meeting of the NBC in Virginia, she gave her speech "How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping." Her former teacher, Mary Virginia Cook-Parrish was also at this meeting and together they worked to found the National Baptist Women's Convention. This launched the Women’s Auxiliary of the NBC and Burroughs traveled throughout the U.S. on their behalf and organized twelve societies. By 1907 the membership of the Women's Convention grew to 1.5 million - the largest organization for black women in the U.S.
She graduated from college in 1904 and took a job for a short time with the theological faculty at Louisville's State University (later Louisville Municipal College, a segregated part of the University of Louisville) but left to return to Washington D.C. in 1905. That same year, she gained international prestige when she presented the keynote address at the First Baptist World Alliance Congress in Hyde Park, London.
Burroughs convinced the Women's Convention to establish the National Training School for Women and Girls in 1909. The school's motto was "We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible." Burroughs started classes in an old farmhouse outside Washington D.C. in a community called Lincolnville - no paved streets, running water or electricity. The Kentucky influence continued: Mary V. Cook-Parrish served as the chair of the Board of Trustees for many years. The school was unique in many ways in that it offered academic training from high school through what we now think of as community/technical college, as well as religious instruction. It boarded students on campus. Burroughs, educated and with role models from Louisville, led the first educational institution that gained national scope and prominence that was for and managed by African Americans. Though more familiar to most, the Tuskegee Institute only trained women in home economics, and it was funded by philanthropists, many of whom were white. Burroughs' school offered many different programs in the trades and in missionary work; and it was supported by many small contributions from American black individuals and organizations across the nation. In addition, students were required to take a class in Black history using resources from Burroughs' friend and colleague, Carter G. Woodson.
Armed with both experience in the field and political philosophy gleaned from the writings of Woodson and of W.E.B. Dubois, Burroughs veered away from Terrell's accommodationist agenda and took up Anna J. Cooper's and Angelina Weld Grimke's radical calls for black women's right to the vote. Writing for The Crisis in 1915, Burroughs emphasized that too many African-American men had squandered their voting rights in going along with ward bosses or taking bribes from white employers to vote against their own interests. She argued that black women needed the vote to advance their own interests as well as to support their race overall."The ballot, wisely used, will bring to her [the African American woman] the respect and protection that she needs. It is her weapon of moral defense. Under present conditions, when she appears in court in defence of her virtue, she is looked upon with amused contempt. She needs the ballot to reckon with men who place no value upon her virtue, and to mould healthy public sentiment in favor of her own protection."
- Nannie Helen Burroughs’s “Black Women and Reform” (published in The Crisis, Aug. 1915) - excerpted from TeachingHistory.org primary source.
Her annual reports for the Woman's Convention of the NBC depicted the strong arguments in support for woman suffrage for many years.
After the original classroom building burned, the Trades Hall building of the school was built during 1927-1928, and Mary McLeod Bethune was the featured speaker at its dedication. Burroughs served as president of the National Trade and Professional School fpr Women and Girls, Inc. until her death in 1961. Nearly 6,000 people attended her funeral held at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church. In 1964 the school was named the Nannie Helen Burroughs School and was reorganized into an elementary school. Miss Burroughs' chair and desk was part of an exhibit in 1990 at the Smithsonian Institution - and the school was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.
In 1920 Burroughs founded the National Association of Wage Earners which focused on improving wages and working conditions for domestic workers. President Hoover appointed her in 1932 as committee chairwoman to address "Negro Housing" issues in the first years of the Great Depression, and she continued with a self-help Cooperative Industries Inc.
In 1907 Burroughs received an honorary M.A. degree from Eckstein Norton University, and in 1944 Shaw University presented her with an Honorary LLD degree. She continued to write and advocate for blacks and in 1950 her pamphlet entitled, "A National Crusade Working To Improve America" was highly regarded even as her politics were seen as too radical by many.
Nannie Burroughs never married, and she died of natural causes on May 20, 1961, in Washington D.C. Many of the narratives of her life now leave out the Kentucky connections, but we want to claim this powerful, radical voice as part of the history of the Kentucky woman suffrage movement.
*** Resources ***
Buxton, Daniel. "African American Education in Bullitt County," Bullitt County History. Bullitt County Genealogical Society, 2015. http://bullittcountyhistory.org/bchistory/aae.html
Harrison, Earl L. The Dream and the Dreamer: An Abbreviated story of the Life of Dr. Nannie Helen Burroughs and the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls at Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C.: Nannie Helen Burroughs Literature Foundation, 1956.
Johnson, Karen Ann. Uplifting the Women and the Race: The Educational Philosophies and Social Activism of Anna Julia Cooper and Nannie Helen Burroughs. London & New York: Taylor & Francis, 2000.
Jones, Camille Hadley. "Fascinating Women: Nannie Helen Burroughs," Edwardian Promenade (February 27, 2011) http://www.edwardianpromenade.com/women/fascinating-women-nannie-helen-burroughs.
Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Nannie Helen Burroughs: Advocate for Racial Pride and Self-Sufficiency for Black Women," About.com. http://womenshistory.about.com/od/aframer190150/fl/Nannie-Burroughs.htm.
Nannie Helen Burroughs papers, 1900-1963. Library of Congress Manuscript Division Washington, D.C. 20540 https://lccn.loc.gov/mm80057026
Nannie Helen Burroughs Project: Rebuilding a Culture of Character. http://nburroughsinfo.org.
"National Training School for Women and Girls, Washington, D.C." 150 photographs. Part of: Burroughs, Nannie Helen, 1879- Nannie Helen Burroughs papers. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004667312/
Obituary, Washington Post (May 21, 1961).
Olsen, Carol. "Burroughs, Nannie." pp. 174-75 in Encylopedia of Christian Education, volume 3. Edited by George Thomas Kurian, Mark A. Lamport. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
Synnott, Marcia. "Burroughs, Nannie Helen" pp. 129-30 in African American Lives. Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higgenbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Taylor, Traki L. "'Womanhood Glorified': Nannie Helen Burroughs and the National Training School for Women and Girls, Inc., 1909-1961," The Journal of African American History, 87 (Autumn, 2002): 390-402. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1562472.
Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American Women in the Struggle for the Vote, 1850-1920. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Washington, Sondra. The Story of Nannie Helen Burroughs. Birmingham, AL: Woman's Missionary Union, 2006.
Wolcott, Victoria W. "'Bible, Bath and Broom'"Nannie Helen Burroughs's Training School and African-American Racial Uplift." Journal of Women's History (March 22, 1997): 18-36.