On May 2, 1879, Nannie Helen Burroughs was born in Orange, Virginia, to parents John and Jennie Burroughs, who were formerly enslaved. Mr. John Burroughs worked as a farmer and was also a Baptist Preacher. Nannie was the eldest of the Burroughs’ children; when she was five years old her father died forcing her family to move to Washington D.C. to live with her aunt Cordelia Mercer. The Burroughs family has a history of gaining skills to create income for survival, Burroughs and her mother were able to bring those skills with them to Washington D.C. to make a living. The Burroughs family took full advantage of the plethora of opportunities available for them in Washington D.C. Nannie was a bright and gifted student who shined in her academic studies. Her academic prowess continued throughout her schooling, helping her graduate with honors from M Street High School in Washington D.C. As a high school student, Burroughs was active within her school’s activities. She was the organizer of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Literary Society at M Street High School. She was also able to study business and domestic sciences giving her a number of skills to make a decent living. Burroughs’ fire and determination led her to meet two women who were active within the women’s suffrage movement that inspired her, Anna J. Cooper and Mary Church Terrell.
After graduating from high school in 1896, Burroughs sought a teaching job within the Washington D.C. school system; it is said that she didn’t get a teaching position because her skin was too dark. She was denied a teaching position by fellow blacks, but she didn’t allow that experience to stop her from teaching. In 1898, Burroughs moved to Louisville, Kentucky to work for the National Baptist Convention as an editorial secretary and bookkeeper for the Foreign Mission Board. Burroughs was one of the founding women of the Women’s Convention, which helped to serve the National Baptist Convention. She served with the Women’s Convention for forty-seven years and was the president for thirteen years. At the time, the National Baptist Convention was considered one of the largest African American organizations for black women. The National Baptist Convention received help from the National Association of Colored Women to serve black women in America, one of the outcomes of the partnership was the creation of the National Association of Wage Earners, an organization that was created to help black women earn better wages. Burroughs served as the president of the National Association of Wage Earners and Mary McLeod Bethune served as the Vice President of the organization. In addition to being a member of the National Association of Wage Earners and the National Baptist Convention, she served with the NAACP and around six other organizations.
Burroughs began working with Herbert Hoover around 1928 to help with black home and land ownership, she also gave her famous speech "How White and Colored Women Can Cooperate in Building a Christian Civilization," in 1938, at the Virginia Women's Missionary Union at Richmond. As a response to her not being able to teach in Washington D.C. and the continued discrimination black women faced in America at the time, Burroughs decided to open her own school for women called the National Training School in 1908. The school started in a farmhouse and gave women who could only take classes in the evening a chance to earn an education. Because Burroughs was such a great teacher, the word spread quickly increasing the popularity of the school, which meant the enrollment drastically increased. Burroughs was using the school to help prepare black women to become the greatest versions of themselves, and in turn, help all of Black America become the greatest version of its self. The school was shaped by their three B motto: the bible, the bath, and the broom. In addition to the skills the women were learning, Burroughs made sure there was an emphasis on teaching black history, so she created her own black history course for her students. Burroughs was preparing the black women of the National Training School to combat the wage labor problems affecting black women, and negative images of black people by the white media. The women were prepared to combat racism, elevate themselves and their race, and do whatever work needed to be done to be able to strive despite being victimized by racism.
Burroughs was a popular person because of her efforts to educate and equip black women to be self-sufficient and create a reasonable living, but she was seen as a villain by those who wanted black women to stay silent and only engage in domestic work. Her being rejected by the blacks within the Washington D.C. school system was a blessing in disguise. She was able to help many black women from poor backgrounds who would have been overlooked by the so-called black elite. Her grassroots efforts helped generations of black women find their callings outside of their homes. During the 1920s, Burroughs wrote and published two plays, The Slabtown District Convention and Where is My Wandering Boy Tonight? Nannie Hellen Burroughs died in 1961 of natural causes, leaving behind a legacy of service and commitment to her people. The National Training School was renamed the Nannie Hellen Burroughs School in 1964. During and after her life she was honored by receiving an honorary Master of Arts degree from Eckstein Norton University in 1907, May 10th of 1975 Nannie Helen Burroughs Day was declared in Washington D.C., and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue was named after her. To the incredible Ms. Nannie Helen Burroughs, we proudly stand on your shoulders.
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