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Nannie Helen Burroughs and her “most creditable work”

I have long wanted Inside Adams to publish a post about Nannie Helen Burroughs. My colleague, Lynn Weinstein sort of beat me to the punch but, I thought there was still so much more to say.

Miss Nannie H. Burroughs, President, Nat'l. League of Rep. Colored Women

Nannie H. Burroughs, 1924 or later.

Nannie Helen Burroughs was born in Virginia around 1880. She moved to Washington, D.C. with her mother, where she excelled in school and graduated from M Street High School (now Paul Laurence Dunbar High School). While in Washington, she met people like Anna J. Cooper and Mary Church Terrell, amazing Black women leading the way in the suffrage movement and civil rights.

For a time Burroughs lived in Louisville, KY and worked for the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention (NBC). She was a founder of the Women’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention and served as its president for about 13 years. She, along with Mary McLeod Bethune, founded and led the National Association of Wage Earners, a Black women’s labor organization. Other than Cooper, Terrell, and Bethune, Burroughs knew and worked with many of the Black leaders of the day, including Maggie L. Walker a business leader who gained prominence when she became the first woman to own a bank in the United States. Burroughs was active in advocating for greater civil rights for Black women and in labor issues.  She believed that women should be able to do more than domestic work; they should have the opportunity to receive an education and job training.

ad says: a training camp for colored women for home defense. Ten Weeks of Intensive Instruction in War Work at the Nation's Capitol. The best place in America to understand the Spirit as well as the Letter o this fight to make Democracy safe for the world with a list courses offered including motor and truck driving and repair, first aid and home service, welfare superintendents, group leaders among women workers, operation of elevators, bundle wrapping, operation of power machines, printing, practical housekeeping, home gardening, canning and drying, stenography and typewriting and more

Advertisement for the National Training School for Women and Girls in Lincoln Heights, Washington, D.C. Richmond Planet, August 31, 1918.

For many years Burroughs had wanted to open her own school. Eventually she managed to gather enough money from smaller donations and the Women’s Auxiliary and National Baptist Convention making it possible for her to buy several acres of land in Washington, D.C. There, in 1909, she opened the National Training School for Women and Girls.

The school had an international student body and offered both academic and vocational courses. This included everything from cooking, sewing, laundering, printing, barbering, and shoe repair, to public speaking, music, and physical education. The school was quite successful and by 1920, there were over 100 students. By 1928, the Trades Hall, now a historic landmark, was built and its dedication in December 1928 featured many notable speakers including Mary McLeod Bethune.

By 1938/1939, the school was renamed as the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls. The school continued to look for ways to further enhance its program. It was still going strong in 1951, when it had a fundraising drive. Nannie Helen Burroughs ran the school until she died in 1961. Today, the Progressive National Baptist Convention occupies the building she built.

The Library has resources for anyone interested in researching this remarkable and determined woman. You can find many great photographs just by searching our website. We also have her papers including correspondence, financial records, speeches and writings, student records, and other papers relating primarily to the founding and management of the National Training School for Women and Girls. The collection also includes material related to 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, and the 1931 President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership.

I would also suggest searching Chronicling America* using the school’s name or hers (also use Nannie H as newspapers didn’t always use her full middle name) as it has a number of Black newspapers including The Broad Ax (Salt Lake City) and the Denver Star. An article from the November 18, 1911 issue of The Bee, provides an inspirational picture–its opening paragraph about her work is, I think, a good way to close the post:

Nannie Helen Burroughs, seated at desk, opening mail

Nannie Helen Burroughs, between 1940 and 1960.

Certainly the most creditable work that is being done by colored women any where in the world, is at Lincoln Heights, in this city. Creditable because it is a necessity; creditable because it is being well done; creditable because it is far reaching; creditable, because it was not inspired by an opportunity to secure educational aid through a beneficent outside gift; creditable because it has filled a niche in the educational world that no other school is filling; creditable because it shows what the women of the race can do.

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*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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