“An idea was struck out of the suffering of that disappointment — that I would some day have a school here in Washington that school politics had nothing to do with, and that would give all sorts of girls a fair chance,” Burroughs would later write. “It came to me like a flash of light, and I knew I was to do that thing when the time came.”
Burroughs decided that if she could not get a job as a teacher, she would start her own school. And that school was only the beginning of a long and illustrious career as an educator, orator, businesswoman, religious leader and activist. She would build or lead nearly a dozen prominent organizations, winning her a place among luminaries of the time, rubbing elbows with Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, and later spending time with a young Martin Luther King Jr. Burroughs was so well-known that after she spoke out against President Woodrow Wilson’s inaction on the problem of lynching, the president had her placed under surveillance.
While many today might not know her name, Burroughs fought tirelessly throughout her 82 years so that Black women of every shade might have the right to an education, fair wages, suffrage — and a place of leadership in the country.
A calling fueled her work, according to Kelisha B. Graves, editor of “Nannie Helen Burroughs: A Documentary Portrait of an Early Civil Rights Pioneer.” Graves said that calling was this: “How do I cultivate women to know that they have the capacity to think loudly, and to think boldly, and to contribute to this great project that we call the United States of America?”
Following that job rejection, Burroughs focused on earning money. She had grown up working-class — her mother, a formerly enslaved woman, was a laundress — and throughout her life, Burroughs preached the virtue of hard work. With opportunities limited, she took a variety of jobs, working as a bookkeeper, a secretary and even a janitor.
Soon she began raising money for the school she dreamed of building. Refusing to rely on White donors, she financed much of the school using small donations from local community members. She also had help from a few prominent Black leaders. Maggie L. Walker, the first Black woman to run a bank in the United States, donated $500 (approximately $14,000 today).
When there was work to be done on the six-acre plot of land she acquired for her school, Burroughs often did it herself: weeding the garden, burning the briers and converting a barn into dormitories. By 1909, when she was barely 30 years old, Burroughs opened the National Training School for Women and Girls in D.C. The school’s motto read: “Work. Support thyself. To thine own powers appeal.”
That first year, Black women and girls from across the country enrolled in her school. Burroughs was forward-thinking in her understanding of what women can or should learn. She taught vocational skills, but her school also emphasized subjects such as literature and Latin. To graduate, all students were required to take a Black history course.
Some historians have likened her to Booker T. Washington for her dedication to teaching practical skills, but that comparison reduces her radical verve.
“She was a person who was a leading voice for racial pride,” said Sharon Harley, an associate professor of African American studies at the University of Maryland who published a frequently cited journal article about Burroughs. Burroughs sought to uplift “a narrative in which people would recognize that Black folks contributed to the spiritual well-being of America,” Harley said.
Her school assisted women in becoming politically — and financially — autonomous. What differentiated Burroughs from many at the time was that she strove to empower Black women to be “public thinkers and not just public doers,” according to Graves.
As a public thinker, and especially as an orator, Burroughs was prolific. A speech she gave in 1900 — at the age of 21 — called “How the Sisters Are Hindered From Helping,” launched her into the public sphere. She would lead some of the major debates taking place in the first quarter of the 20th century, arguing for suffrage especially, because she recognized the intersectionality of racism, sexism and classism.
The history of women’s suffrage has been frequently “white-washed,” said Jenifer Barclay, an assistant professor of history at the University at Buffalo. But many of the women leading the charge for suffrage came from Black communities and communities of color, even if they were often ostracized by White, segregationist activists. “She saw [suffrage] as a weapon not just to engage politically but as a way for women to protect themselves,” Barclay said.
After the passage of the 19th Amendment, Burroughs continued to emphasize the necessity of Black women’s electoral power. “Since Negro women have the ballot, they must not undervalue it,” she would write. “The Race is doomed unless Negro women take an active part in local, state and national politics. …They must organize to fight discrimination and class legislation.”
When it came to fighting discrimination, Burroughs employed other forms of political engagement. She would found the National Association of Wage Earners, an organization that aimed to ensure better pay, especially for working-class women. Throughout the 1920s, the organization expanded and would attract some 10,000 members.
Meanwhile, by 1929 her school moved to a new complex with eight buildings, 12 classrooms, three offices and a print shop. Over the years, her influence continued to grow, as she responded to the fresh crises of the Great Depression and World War II, encouraging Black women to aspire to new heights.
The Black community in D.C. and beyond praised the success of her school. Burroughs herself, once considered an outsider, was more than accepted as a peer of Black activists and thinkers of the era — she was lauded as a leader in her own right. Her accomplishments outshone the prejudice that colorism and classism may have tried to dim.
As the civil rights movement accelerated in the 1950s, Burroughs continued her activism well into her 70s. Burroughs was a friend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s parents and invited King to speak at a convention she hosted. When King led the Montgomery bus boycott, Burroughs wrote to his mother about how much she admired the “calm, sure way that Junior is standing up for right and righteousness.”
After her death in 1961, her school was renamed for her, but her legacy lives on beyond that building. Burroughs fits into a much broader continuum of Black women activists, Barclay noted — from the many women who were instrumental in the bus boycott to people such as Georgia voting activist Stacey Abrams today.
Burroughs inscribed herself in a long tradition of women throughout our history who have sought, as she once said, to “make the world large enough for democracy and too small for race prejudice, discrimination, injustice and hate.”
Jess McHugh’s work has appeared in the New York Times and TIME, among others. Her book “Americanon,” a history of U.S. bestsellers, is being published in June.
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