Civil Rights

Nannie Helen Burroughs

Nannie Helen Burroughs was a remarkable woman who dedicated her life to education, religion, social justice, and women’s empowerment. She was born in 1879 in Virginia to formerly enslaved parents and moved to Washington, D.C. with her mother after her father’s death. She graduated with honors from M Street High School, where she was influenced by prominent black educators and activists like Anna J. Cooper and Mary Church Terrell.

Burroughs had a passion for learning and teaching, but she faced discrimination and rejection when she applied for a teaching position in the D.C. public schools. She did not let this setback discourage her; instead, she pursued her vision of creating a training school for black women and girls that would provide them with academic, vocational, and moral education. In 1909, she founded the National Training School for Women and Girls with the support of the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention (NBC), of which she was a founding member.

Nannie Helen Burroughs

The National Training School for Women and Girls was a unique institution that offered courses in domestic science, business, nursing, missionary work, and other subjects. Burroughs served as the president of the school until her death in 1961. She also taught classes, supervised the staff, raised funds, and managed the campus. She believed that education was the key to uplift the black community and promote racial pride and self-reliance. She encouraged her students to follow her motto: “We specialize in the wholly impossible.”

Burroughs was not only an educator, but also an orator, religious leader, civil rights activist, feminist, and businesswoman. She delivered powerful speeches at national and international conferences, advocating for women’s rights, black history, economic justice, and world peace. She was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to chair a special committee on housing for African Americans. She also founded several organizations, such as the National Association of Wage Earners, the National League of Republican Colored Women, and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs.

Burroughs was a friend and supporter of Martin Luther King Jr. and his family. She invited him to speak at the Women’s Auxiliary of the NBC in 1954 and praised his message of “The Vision of the World Made New.” She also wrote to his mother, Alberta Williams King, expressing her admiration for his leadership during the Montgomery bus boycott. She prayed for his recovery after he was stabbed in 1958.

Nannie Helen Burroughs was a trailblazer for women and girls who left a lasting legacy of service, leadership, and excellence. She was honored by the U.S. Postal Service with a commemorative stamp in 1997. Her school was renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in 1964 and is still operating as a co-ed elementary school today. Her Trades Hall building was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1991.

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