Danielle Phillips-Cunningham teaches multicultural women’s and gender studies at Texas Woman’s University and writes about race and women’s labor history. She is writing a book about Nannie Helen Burroughs, who founded the National Association of Wage Earners, a little-known but important Black women’s labor organization. Phillips-Cunningham has researched the book in the Library’s Nannie Helen Burroughs papers.
Who was Nannie Helen Burroughs?
Burroughs was an African American labor leader, suffragist, educator and civil rights organizer born in Orange, Virginia, in 1879. In 1909, she founded the National Trade School for Women and Girls (NTS). Located in Washington, D.C., the NTS served as a trade school for Black girls and young women throughout the African diaspora until the 1960s.
Her primary mission in creating the NTS was to improve the working conditions of Black domestic workers. With formal education in domestic science, Burroughs believed, Black women could demand higher wages from household employers and could be more selective about the homes where they worked.
Burroughs also wanted Black women and girls to have the option of becoming entrepreneurs and pursuing a variety of professions where they were underrepresented because of discriminatory hiring practices. She created an extensive school curriculum that included courses in cooperative farming, stenography, printing, barbering and public speaking, to name a few.
What inspired you to tell Burroughs’ story, and how are you documenting it?
I was blown away when I discovered that Burroughs established the National Association of Wage Earners (NAWE) in 1921, one of the first national Black women’s labor organizations in U.S. history. The organization operated like a labor union and had an extensive membership of domestic workers, clubwomen, educators, pastors, insurance agents, beauticians and many other workers from across the country who fought for labor rights for Black domestic workers.
I am documenting Burroughs’ history for a wide range of people to learn about her work and possibly become inspired to research the Burroughs papers at the Library for themselves.
While writing my book, I have published an op-ed about Burroughs in the Washington Post.
What do you most want to let people know about Burroughs?
Nannie Helen Burroughs should be a household name. There is only one surviving building of the NTS, and her history could be lost if we do not continue to tell her story.
Burroughs contributed extensively to the labor and civil rights movements through her school, writings, speeches and leadership in women’s organizations. She worked on multiple fronts to push for Black women’s access to living wages, quality education, voting, safe living and working conditions and protection from lynchings and sexual assault.
While presiding over the NTS and NAWE, she took on other important roles as well, including as co-founder and president of the National League of Republican Colored Women, a women’s voting group that organized against lynchings and Jim Crow laws. [//www.loc.gov/exhibitions/women-fight-for-the-vote/about-this-exhibition/hear-us-roar-victory-1918-and-beyond/ratification-and-beyond/race-is-doomed-unless-negro-women-take-an-active-part/]
What are a couple favorite discoveries from the Burroughs papers?
Thousands of people from around the world came to Washington, D.C., to visit Burroughs’ remarkable school. I was heartened to see the names of professors from my alma mater, Spelman College, in an NTS guest book from the early 1910s. I later learned that Burroughs regarded Spelman as a model for her own school. I also found NAWE membership cards from professors of the Atlanta University Center, a group of historically Black colleges and universities that includes Spelman College.
Another favorite gem is the subscriber lists of The Worker, a paper that Burroughs started in the printing department of her school to circulate her writings about labor organizing, civil rights and religion. People from Cuba, Jamaica and large bustling cities and small rural towns of every single U.S. state subscribed to her paper.
Do you have any advice for other researchers on navigating the Library’s collections?
Get to know the archivists! I’ve found that many people at the Library have been working there for several years and have deep knowledge about the collections that you cannot get from secondary sources.
I am so glad that I met Patrick Kerwin in the Manuscript Reading Room during my first visit to the Library. Over the years, he has directed me to sources at the Library that I did not readily see online or in finding aids. He also suggested that I contact people who are connected to the Burroughs papers and whose names are not mentioned in published articles or books that cover Burroughs’ history.
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Thank you for your article and research. When I lived in Washington DC, I would pass Nanny Helen Burrough Ave. I always wondered about her life and accomplishments. Thank you for answering my questions and honoring this extraordinary human being.
Great research! You may be interested in my blog “Honoring African Americans: Historic Women Trailblazers and Advocacy Organizations” from Inside Adams. It discusses Ms.Burroughs and her friends Maggie L. Walker and Mary Church Terrell from a business perspective.
Thank you so much for the article and research done concerning Nannie Helen Burroughs. I will discuss this information with my students at Jefferson Davis High School located in Montgomery, Alabama.
Thanks for reading, Ms. Warren, and that should certainly be quite the conversation.
JM, Debra, and Lynn, thank you for your responses! I’m glad to know that Burroughs’ history resonates with you. Debra, I got your voicemail and will give you a call this week.
I am so happy you are writing about this! She never stopped, did she? She identified problems and sought solutions. I am writing my PhD thesis on missions and white evangelical women in the South and continually return to Burroughs. The women I write about could not comprehend (and probably tried to avoid knowing) the full range of her thought and activity. I look forward to your book!
If you have a mailing list I would like to be on it.