Burroughs, Nannie Helen

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Burroughs, Nannie Helen

May 2, 1879
May 20, 1961

Nannie Helen Burroughs, an educator, was born in Orange, Virginia. Her father, born free, attended the Richmond Institute and became a preacher. Her mother, born a slave in Virginia, left her husband and took her two young daughters to Washington, D.C., to attend school. At the Colored High School (later Dunbar High), where she was deeply interested in domestic science, Burroughs came in contact with Mary Church Terrell and Anna Julia Cooper, two women who became her role models. After graduation in 1896 she got a job at the Philadelphia office of the Christian Banner while also working part-time for the Rev. Lewis Jordan, an official of the National Baptist Convention (NBC). When Jordan moved to Louisville, Kentucky, Burroughs also relocated there. In Louisville she initiated her career of activism by organizing a women's industrial club that offered evening classes in bookkeeping, sewing, cooking, and typing.

In 1900, at the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Virginia, Burroughs gave a speech titled "How the Sisters Are Hindered from Helping," which gained her national recognition and served as a catalyst for the formation of the largest black women's organization in the United States, the Woman's Convention (WC), an auxiliary to the NBC. The WC was the result of longstanding efforts by women in the Baptist Church to develop an organization to represent them. It provided a forum for black women to deal with religious, political, and social issues and took the lead in their religious and educational training. From 1900 to 1948 Burroughs served as corresponding secretary to the WC, and from 1948 until her death in 1961 she served as president. Because of her hard work and leadership, the membership of the WC grew dramatically, reaching one million members in 1903 and 1.5 million in 1907.

Burroughs spent nearly her entire adult life in the public arena challenging racial discrimination and encouraging African Americans to maintain pride and dignity. An eloquent public speaker, she toured the country denouncing lynching, segregation, employment discrimination, and colonialism. She supported the efforts of the NAACP to attain legal equality for blacks and criticized President Woodrow Wilson for his silence on lynching. She was a staunch feminist who believed women's suffrage was a route to racial advancement as well as a safeguard against male domination and sexual abuse. Like many women of her time, Burroughs believed in the moral superiority of women and the positive impact they could have on the public life of African Americans. Referring to the ballot, she wrote, "The Negro woman needs to get back by the wise use of it what the Negro man has lost by the misuse of it." She was convinced that if given political power, black women would take an uncompromising stand against racial discrimination and political disfranchisement.

In 1896 Burroughs joined other women and formed the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) to promote the political mobilization of black women. She became deeply involved in partisan politics, and in 1924 she and other clubwomen founded the National League of Republican Colored Women. Burroughs became a much sought-after participant by the Republican Party's national speakers bureau. After Herbert Hoover was elected president in 1928, he chose Burroughs to head a fact-finding commission on housing. Even after the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, when most African Americans transferred their political loyalty to the Democratic Party, Burroughs continued her steadfast support of the Republicans.

In addition to opposing institutional racism, Burroughs was also a tireless advocate for black pride and self-help. She believed that progress was ultimately a question of individual will and effort and that with enough self-esteem and self-confidence people could overcome racial barriers. In 1909 in Washington, D.C., she founded the National Training School for Women and Girls, which was renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in 1964. The core of the school's training was what Burroughs called the "three B's": Bible, bath, and broom. The school also offered industrial training in a wide variety of occupations, such as printing, bookkeeping, housekeeping, stenography, dressmaking, and cooking. Burroughs encouraged black women to work hard and excel, whatever their position in society. Through her religious and educational work, she hoped to imbue black women with moral values, such as thrift and hard work, as well as prepare them to become self-sufficient wage earners. Burroughs died in Washington, D.C., at the age of eighty-two.

See also Cooper, Anna J.; National Association of Colored Women; National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc.; Terrell, Mary Eliza Church


Easter, Opal V. Nannie Helen Burroughs. New York: Garland, 1995.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Race and Sex on Black Women in America. New York: William Morrow, 1996.

Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 18801920. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Johnson, Karen Ann. Uplifting the Women and the Race: The Lives, Educational Philosophies and Social Activism of Anna Julia Cooper and Nannie Helen Burroughs. New York: Garland, 2000.

premilla nadasen (1996)
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