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Nannie Helen Burroughs, trailblazing Black teacher and labor organizer

For Labor Day, we look at how she forged career paths and jobs for Black girls during the Jim Crow era.

Nannie Helen Burroughs, circa 1920s. (Courtesy of the Southern Baptist Convention Historical Library and Archives)

This Labor Day comes during a year of a historic upturn in labor organizing — including, just this month, a teacher strike in Columbus, Ohio. My research has delved into some of the long history of teachers’ community investment and institution-building that can strengthen our democracy.

In a forthcoming labor history, I explore the life of Nannie Helen Burroughs, founder of the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, D.C., in 1909. Burroughs was one of several trailblazing Black women educators and labor leaders. When Burroughs founded the NTS in 1909, Black women and girls were among the most exploited workers in the country. The Jim Crow South relegated Black youths to often-underfunded schools. Black women and girls were barred from jobs other than sharecropping and domestic service, the lowest-paying occupations in the U.S. economy. No laws protected them from rampant racial and gender violence.

Teaching was one of the very few professions available to educated women like Burroughs. As with her pioneering friends Mary McLeod Bethune and Lucy Craft Laney, for Burroughs, teaching was never solely about lesson plans. Burroughs used her position as corresponding secretary of the Woman’s Convention (WC), the women’s auxiliary group to the National Baptist Convention (NBC), to democratize education by building her own school.

While teaching and presiding over the NTS, Burroughs worked at holding the country accountable to the citizenship promises of the Fourteenth Amendment. Through her curriculum and community organizing, she operationalized her philosophy that every young person deserved a quality education that opened access to any profession, living wages, safe and comfortable housing, clean water and nutritious food, and personal enjoyments. She often sacrificed her livelihood, personal comforts, and sometimes her physical health to meet the needs of her students and communities.

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Challenging inequalities through curriculum building

Influenced by her high school teachers Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell, Burroughs made the politically and financially risky decision to create a blended curriculum of trade and academic programs for her students. As she declared, the mission of the NTS was to “prepare the army of colored women breadwinners” to “think and work.”

She could find no investors among White philanthropists who believed that Black girls were intellectually incapable of learning academic subjects or Baptist leaders who argued that a girls trades program would disrupt the “natural” order in which men were breadwinners. Instead, she found smaller donors from the Woman’s Convention, Black educators, White women educators, and other supporters. For 30 years, Burroughs took no salary to allocate those funds to building and repairing dormitories, classrooms, a dining hall, and providing student scholarships and teacher salaries.

Juneteenth started in Texas. So did this Black town. Whites destroyed it.

Burroughs built the NTS as a laboratory where she and faculty experimented with how to challenge the hierarchies of occupations, while meeting the material needs, aspirations, and intellectual curiosities of their students. Knowing that Black women could most easily find jobs in household employment, they created a rigorous domestic science curriculum to provide students with the certification enabling them to demand living wages and safe working conditions.

They designed trade courses in printing, stenography, millinery and power machine operation, training students to assert their right to jobs in fields dominated by men and White women. Students also took courses in African American history, English, ancient and general history, sociology, Latin and Spanish.

On Labor Day, we remember Black women who helped win labor rights

Community organizing through the NTS

Burroughs knew that her curriculum alone would not change society for young people. As a creative writer, she wrote plays to inspire community conversations and collective action against systemic inequalities. In 1929, NTS students performed her play “When Truth Gets a Hearing” — about racial and labor injustices in the United States, Haiti, Liberia and Ethiopia — in churches and theaters along the East Coast and in California.

After attending the performance at Dunbar Theater in Philadelphia, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote to her: “I was astonished and gratified to note the way in which it gripped and interested the audience. … We have lots to learn from you.” Alice Dunbar Nelson, Harlem Renaissance writer and Burroughs’s close friend, wrote that the “audience voiced their approval so vigorously and whole-heartedly that some of the lines were lost.”

During the Depression, Burroughs turned her attention to organizing students and the local D.C. community. In 1934, she established the Cooperative Industries (initially called the Northeast Self-Help Cooperative) on the NTS campus. Through its medical clinic, broom factory, grocery store, furniture (barrel-chair) manufacturing, and 106-acre farm, the cooperative provided jobs, affordable resources, and business shares for NTS students and over 6,000 Black people.

Burroughs developed a stress-induced illness from the hard work of keeping her school and cooperative open during that national financial crisis. Even then, she wrote countless letters from her sick bed requesting donations from friends and organizations for building repairs, student scholarships, and teacher salaries. With supporters’ help, NTS enrollment increased by the late 1930s. Burroughs and NTS faculty continued serving students and communities until she passed away in 1961. In 1964, the NTS was renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in her honor and was eventually turned into a private elementary school that closed in 2006.

Valuing teachers and the work they do

If Burroughs were still with us, she would join teachers at picket lines across the country. Her concerns, challenges, sacrifices, and community influences echo in the stories of teachers more than 100 years later. Her example reminds us that teachers’ labor is essential to the health and future of the country, supporting young people’s and communities’ everyday needs and aspirations.

Professors: Check out TMC's newly indexed and reorganized classroom topic guides.

Danielle Phillips-Cunningham (@Phillips3D) is program director and associate professor of women’s and gender studies at Texas Woman’s University and author of the forthcoming “ ‘A Tower of Strength in the Labor World’: Nannie Helen Burroughs and Her National Training School for Women and Girls” (Georgetown University Press)