This biosketch was written by Dr. Carol Mattingly, Professor Emerita of English at the University of Louisville. For her full project on “African American Women and Suffrage in Louisville,” visit https://arcg.is/1O8muW.
Nannie Burroughs was born into difficult circumstances. Her parents, Jennie Poindexter and John Burrus, were children when slavery was abolished in their home county of Orange, Virginia. Jennie was only seventeen in 1875 when Nannie, her first child, was born. By the time Nannie was five and her sister Maggie was three, the Burrus family was living with Nannie’s grandfather, Elijah Poindexter, who according to the census of that year, worked at day labor and was the sole support of his two children, along with the Burrus family. Sometime in the ensuing years, Jennie Burrus moved to Washington, D.C. with her two children. Unable to read or write and limited by the occupations open to Black women, she supported her daughters with domestic labor and looked to the possibility that education might allow her daughters a better life. Nannie grew up in a neighborhood of families supported largely by laundresses and domestic servants, giving her an appreciation of and desire to help working women. Sometime during these years Nannie Burrus began using the spelling Burroughs.
Nannie Burroughs attended public schools in Washington, D. C. An excellent student, she graduated with honors and hoped to become a teacher; however, she was not chosen for teaching despite her excellent credentials. She believed her skin color was a factor, as those hired were lighter complexioned. She often addressed intra-racial color prejudice in her speeches. When her teaching dreams did not materialize, she moved to Philadelphia and worked for Lewis Jordan, head of the Baptist Foreign Mission Board. When Jordan and the Foreign Mission board moved to Louisville in 1898, Burroughs accompanied Jordan and continued to serve as clerk, later becoming editor for the Mission Board. While Burroughs’s intelligence and talent were clear before she came to Kentucky, it is in Kentucky that she found mentorship within the Baptist community at State University and Eckstein-Norton Institute that allowed her talents to flourish. Here she came under the care of a strong community of women and men who supported her ideas and talents, including especially Mary Cook Parrish, with whom she lived during her early years in Louisville. (Photo of Burroughs below taken sometime between 1900 and 1920.)
Shortly after coming to Louisville, Burroughs founded Louisville’s Woman’s Industrial Club, which taught young women self-worth, along with business, millinery, dressmaking, and domestic skills, to assure they could support themselves and their families with dignity. After just a few years, she took her ideas for educating and giving confidence to Black women to a national level, founding the National Industrial Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, D. C. In this endeavor, she educated thousands of women over her lifetime, maintaining the school despite patriarchal efforts to usurp her control. She kept the school funded with support from working women across the country who believed in her cause and donated coupons they had saved from products they used and money in small amounts.
Burroughs became president of the National Training School for Women and Girls, the first of its kind, and served in that capacity for the remainder of her life, but she maintained close ties with Louisville, visiting the city regularly. She drew upon her Kentucky connections to assure a successful beginning for her national school, employing such women as Georgia Moore, who would become a principal in the Louisville Colored Schools (a Louisville school was later named for her) and Elizabeth Nancy Goodloe, who also joined Burroughs in Washington to teach in Burroughs’s school. Mary Cook Parrish served as Chair of the school’s board of directors.
Unlike many Black suffragists, who spoke openly of suffrage primarily within their own organizations and communities, Burroughs spoke publicly, often, about women’s right to suffrage. As a national leader, she traveled the country, and her oratorical skills became legendary. Audiences waited in line for hours to hear her speak and cheered for long periods of time after her speeches, often throwing money at her feet in appreciation. She became a leader in a myriad of local and national organizations. The major catalyst in the founding of the Baptist Woman’s Convention, the strong, separate Convention controlled by women, Burroughs served as its corresponding secretary or president throughout her lifetime. She also held offices in the National Association of Colored Women, The National Council of Colored Women, The National Republican Colored Women’s League, which she helped to found in 1924, and The Council of Women of Darker Color, among others.
A young contemporary of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, Burroughs’s educational philosophy combined the best of both men’s theories: Acknowledging the times in which she lived, she provided access to domestic, manual, and millinery skills while at the same time offering women the classical education and “refinement” that served them well, both in their employment and in reducing prejudice against Black women. During her lifetime, Burroughs was called the female Booker T. Washington because of her overwhelming popularity and national stature. She was, however, in many ways a precursor to Martin Luther King, Jr. Always peaceful, always respectful, Burroughs nonetheless persistently and adamantly, often with wry humor, called for woman’s rights and civil rights for her people. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., she was so popular and respected that the U. S. government feared her influence in calling for change. In 1917, the U. S government’s military intelligence bureau monitored her activities closely. The file they collected listed all those she visited and those with whom she corresponded, as well as outlining all her travels.
As did so many African American women, Burroughs encouraged women to use their newfound voting power. She returned to Kentucky often, speaking at commencement exercises and national conferences, and to support African American and women’s causes and celebrations. As president of the National Republican Colored Women’s League, she returned to campaign for Republican candidates across Kentucky. She wrote letters for publication in Louisville’s Black-owned newspaper, The Leader. Both The Leader, and the Louisville Courier Journal covered her activities widely, proud to claim her for Louisville. Always welcomed and celebrated while in Kentucky, she also hosted Kentuckians when they were in and traveling through Washington D.C.
Nannie Helen Burroughs is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery, Suitland, Maryland.
*** Sources ***
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