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  • Kimberley Guillemet

World Changer of the Month — September 2022: Nannie Helen Burroughs

Nannie Helen Burroughs was born on May 2, 1879, in Orange, Virginia, to John and Jennie Burroughs, both former slaves. She was the eldest of five children. After the death of her younger sisters and her father, Ms. Burroughs and her mother relocated to Washington, D.C. where there were better opportunities for employment and education.

Upon graduating from M Street High School with honors in 1896, Ms. Burroughs sought work as a domestic science teacher in the District of Columbia Public Schools. Despite her qualifications, she was refused the position because her skin was “too black.” She was advised that they preferred lighter-complexioned Black teachers.

Ms. Burroughs later wrote that after that experience, “[a]n 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. It came to me like a flash of light, and I knew I was to do that thing when the time came.”

Ms. Burroughs continued to work and apply herself. She was employed as an editorial secretary and bookkeeper of the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention. Committed to educating and inspiring young Black women and helping them understand their worth and value, Ms. Burroughs opened the National Training School in 1908, a school dedicated to the education of Black women. The school’s motto read: “Work. Support thyself. To thine own powers appeal.”

In the first few years of its existence, the school provided evening classes for women who had no other means of education. There were only 31 students. However, after time, and due to its exceptional reputation, the school eventually attracted women from all over the nation. Ms. Burroughs required all students to take a history course that was dedicated to learning about influential African Americans, since this topic was excluded from general historical curriculum in the U.S. at the time.

The school was only the beginning of Ms. Burroughs’ long and illustrious career as an educator, orator, businesswoman, religious leader and activist. She helped found the National Association of Colored Women, was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to chair a special committee on housing for African Americans, founded the Women's Convention (serving from 1900 to 1947), and acted as a central figure in the network of African American suffragists.

After dedicating her life to educating and uplifting the overlooked of American society, Ms. Burroughs passed away on May 20, 1961, in Washington D.C. After her death, her school was renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in her honor.

Known for her wisdom and insight, she was quoted as saying, “Education and justice are democracy’s only life insurance.”


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