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Honoring African Americans: Historic Women Trailblazers and Advocacy Organizations

This post was written by Lynn Weinstein a Business Reference Librarian in the Science, Technology, and Business Division.

African American women have been central to the development of social, economic, and political influence through associations and advocacy organizations. When I was researching the African American Business and Entrepreneurship: A Resource Guide, which has a page dedicated to information about African American Associations, I became interested in examining some of the women who were leaders of historic institutions advocating for social justice. In this blog I will highlight three women who founded and led organizations with a focus on social activism through the development of personal relationships, mentoring, and collaborating to bring about social change, often with a goal of bringing more people into the middle class: Maggie L. Walker, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Mary Church Terrell.

Seven women standing or sitting at tables working at typewriters or watching others use typewriters.

National Training School for Women, typewriting class, between about 1910 and about 1925. Prints and Photographs Division.

“First we need a savings bank. Let us put our moneys together; let us use our moneys; let us put our money out at usury among ourselves, and reap the benefit ourselves. Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.”

Maggie L. Walker, Independent Order of St. Luke Annual Convention, August 20, 1901

Maggie L. Walker (1864-1934) assumed a leadership position in the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL) in 1899. This Baptist fraternity was formed in Baltimore in 1867 by formerly enslaved Mary Prout, in order to administer to the ill and bury the dead with dignity. Ms. Walker realized that the Order needed to invest its money, and she decided to found the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, VA, with a mission of allowing people to invest, even if it was only pennies, into the bank that would reinvest in the community. Significantly, she was the first female bank president of any race in the United States. The bank was run by Black women to meet the needs of middle class women in the community. She also  launched a department store, the St. Luke Emporium, and a newspaper, the St. Luke Herald, to inform readers of the work of the IOSL. Ms. Walker was a gifted speaker, and traveled throughout the U.S. to expand the membership of the IOSL. She dedicated her life to economic and educational empowerment and civil rights advancement, holding leadership positions in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP),  the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and the Frederick Douglas Home, in Washington, D.C.  In fact, Maggie Walker donated money to the training school founded by the next community leader that I will cover, Nannie Helen Burroughs.

Half length portrait, facing front.

Nannie Helen Burroughs, between 1900 and 1920. Prints and Photographs Division

Ms. Burroughs (1879-1961) was a self-made educator and religious leader who founded and managed the National Training School for Women and Girls (later the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls) in 1909 in Washington, D.C., under the auspices of the National Baptist Convention after she was denied a teaching position due to her dark complexion.  The vocational school provided instruction in typewriting, cooking, sewing, crafts, Latin, grammar, bible study, public speaking, music, physical education and African American history with a goal of providing skills that would result in higher wages and better living conditions. Ms. Burroughs had a dynamic personality and was a stirring speaker who raised funds for the school from the Black community.  The Library of Congress holds the papers of Nannie Helen Borroughs, which document her activities through letters, articles and speeches. The papers include her work with the Woman’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention of the United States of America, the National League of Republican Colored Women, the National Association of Wage Earners, the 1931 President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership, missionary activities in Africa, Cooperative Industries, Washington, D.C. (a community self-help program), and the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association. Burroughs became part of an important network of African American women suffragists including Coralie Franklin Cook, Anna Julia Cooper, Angelina Weld Grimké, Lucy Diggs Slowe, and Mary Church Terrell.

“Lifting as we climb”

-Motto of the National Association of Colored Women

Mary Church Terrell, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front

Mary Church Terrell, three-quarter length portrait, seated, facing front. Photo: Harris & Ewing. Prints and Photographs Division.

Nannie Helen Burroughs and Mary Church Terrell (1863-1954) met at the M Street High School when Ms. Terrell was a teacher and Ms. Burroughs a student. They were both in the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, whose first act of public service was their participation in the 1913 Women’s Suffrage March in Washington, D.C. Ms. Terrell worked with leaders including Booker T. Washington to implement self-help programs and direct strikes and boycotts in defiance of segregation. She aided in the founding of two of the most important Black political action groups, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Ms. Terrell supported the organization of kindergartens and day-nurseries for disadvantaged children through these organizations and was an advocate for ending housing and education segregation and discrimination. She wrote and spoke on lynching, the convict leasing system, women’s suffrage, and education. She was the plaintiff in a discrimination law suit against a restaurant that refused to serve her that was settled in the Supreme Court just before her death in 1954.

These women exhibited strength, determination, and perseverance, and were outstanding leaders and innovators of early advocacy organizations fighting for social justice. They all valued education, were excellent orators and writers who understood the power of the word, and were involved in the women’s suffrage movement. Today, the torch has been passed to a new generation of social justice champions. These community organizers are advocating for many of the same things: racial justice, voting rights, educational opportunities, higher wages, and gender equality, as well as police and prison reform.

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Please note that terminology in historical materials and in Library descriptions does not always match the language preferred by members of the communities depicted, and may include negative stereotypes or words some may consider offensive. The Library presents the historic captions because they can be important for understanding the context in which the images were created.

One Comment

  1. Marta Urteaga Pippin Nail
    March 11, 2021 at 5:17 pm

    I (as an immigrant) have for some time believed
    that a cultural history of the United States should be included in the high school curriculum. Such history, of course should include both men and women.

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