Nannie Helen Burroughs, the activist who refused to marry to enable her educate Black women

Stephen Nartey January 27, 2023
Nannie Helen Burrough/Photo credit: H-Net

Nannie Helen Burroughs was an extraordinary student in her early years. She completed M Street High School with honors. Despite her astounding academic accomplishments, no school in Washington, D.C. was willing to offer her a job.

The elite Black community deepened her woes because they would not want anything to do with her because her skin was considered too dark, according to the National Park Service.

This hurdle, however, did not deter her in the pursuit of her dreams. She resolved to establish her own school that will be dedicated solely to grooming poor working Black women. She approached the National Baptist Convention with her proposal. The leadership gave her funds to purchase six acres of land in northwest Washington, D.C.

Burroughs had surmounted one of the major challenges to achieving her dream. But, the bigger one was raising funds to erect the structure. She approached civil rights leader Booker T. Washington but he wasn’t convinced African Americans will dole out money to put up a school.

Burroughs, on the other hand, didn’t want her school to be built on the back of funds from white donors. Her ingenuity in resolving challenges she encounters came into play once more. She persuaded Black women and children from her community to support her dream with whatever money they had.

She bagged a significant amount of money to construct the National Training School for Women and Girls. Her philosophy was to train women with skills that lifted them from domestic roles and the social frames they were placed in. Many disagreed with this position but she pressed on. This shot the school into prominence during the first half of the 20th century.

She never married and dedicated her entire life to educating and empowering Black women. Until 1928 when the school moved into a bigger facility called the Trades Hall, it initially trained the women in a small farmhouse. The Hall had twelve classrooms, three offices, an assembly area and a print shop.

It isn’t clear the date of Burroughs’ birth but it is believed she was born around 1880. Her mother and father were former slaves living in Orange, Virginia. She lost her father at a very young age, which compelled her mother to move to Washington, D.C. with her.

Burroughs wasn’t only passionate about girls’ education; she was also concerned about racial equality and social justice for African Americans. Her activism was more targeted at providing greater social and economic freedom for Black women.

Due to limited career choices for women, what many of them were engaged in was domestic roles like cooking and cleaning. But, Burroughs believed women could be more than this if they were empowered through education and skills training.

She campaigned for white and Black women to work in unison in order to exercise their voting rights. She was of the view that, once women had such power, they could protect their interests.

Burroughs passed away in May 1961. Authorities in 1964 renamed her school the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in recognition of her vision. She will be remembered for defying the status quo that sought to suppress gender and race.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 27, 2023


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