Nannie Helen Burroughs


Nannie Helen Burroughs was a prolific writer, educator, and Baptist leader. She was also founder of the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls, established in Washington, DC. She was the eldest daughter born to John and Jennie Burroughs on May 2, 1883 in Orange, Virginia. Her widowed mother took her to Washington, DC at an early age in pursuit of a better education. She studied business and domestic science in high school and graduated with honours in 1896. She later became an accomplished writer and editor and also served as President of the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention.

After graduation, Miss Burroughs had hoped to teach domestic science, but was denied a teaching position by the Board of Education in the District of Colombia. This denial spurred her to eventually start her own school which “would give all sorts of girls a fair chance”. Disappointed, she moved to Philadelphia and became Associate Editor of a Baptist newspaper, The Christian Banner. Later she returned to Washington expecting to get an appointment after having received a high rating on a civil service exam. Again, she experienced disappointment when she was told there were no jobs for a “coloured girl”. Bruised, but still proud and self-sufficient, she took a job as an office building janitor and later became a bookkeeper for a manufacturing company. She then accepted a position in Louisville, Kentucky as a secretary for the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention.

In the early 1900’s, Miss Burroughs established the Women’s Industrial Club which offered short-term lodging to Black women and taught them basic domestic skills. The organisation also provided moderate-cost lunches for downtown office workers. Later, she started to hold evening classes, for 10 cents a week, for club members majoring in business. Also, during the Depression, Miss Burroughs established and managed a self-help venture called Cooperative Industrial, Inc. which provided free facilities for a medical clinic, a hairdressing salon and a variety store.

In 1907, with the support of the National Baptist Convention, Miss Burroughs began coordinating building plans for the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls located in Washington, DC. The school opened its doors in 1909 with her as President. Under the motto, “We specialise in the wholly impossible,” Miss Burroughs sought “the highest development of Christian womanhood” through a curriculum designed to emphasize practical and professional skills. Her students were taught to be self-sufficient wage earners as well as “expert homemakers”. Although she and Booker T Washington had similar approaches to vocational education, at no time during the history of the training school did the curriculum emphasize vocational education to the exclusion of academic subjects. She believed it was her duty to see that an industrial and a classical education be attained simultaneously. A traditionalist who found grammatical errors physically painful, she required courses on a high school and a junior college level that developed language skills. The National Trade and Professional School also maintained a close connection between education and religion. Its creed, stressed by Miss Burroughs, consisted of the “three B’s – the Bible, the bath, the broom: clean life, clean body, clean house”. Of particular price at the National Training School was its Black history program in which every student was required to take a course.

Many honours were accorded Miss Burroughs. In 1964, the school she founded was renamed the Nannie Burroughs School. And, in 1975, in recognition of her courage and wisdom in supporting education for Black women against the consensus of society, Mayor Walter E Washington proclaimed May 10th Nannie Helen Borroughs Day in the District of Columbia. Miss Burroughs died of a stroke in 1961.