The Library of Congress >> Virtual Programs and Services

Home About Schedule Webcasts School List Teachers' Panel Reading Contact Us
Discovering Hidden Washington: A Journey Through the Alley Communities of the Nation's Capital
Special Presentation - Nannie Helen Burroughs

I was born on May 2 1879 in Orange, Virginia. When I was five my widowed mother bought me to Washington, D.C. in pursuit of a better education. At the M Street High School I excelled under the guidance of dedicated teachers like Mary Church Terrell, graduating with honors in 1896.

At the time, African American women were basically limited to two employment options: domestic service or teaching. My mother, like the majority of African American women in cities, worked as a domestic servant. The work domestic servants performed maintaining homes was considered unskilled labor; and therefore, paid low wages. As a result, many African American domestic servants and their families lived in poverty in places like Shepherd Alley.

Image - Portrait of Nannie Helen BurroughsI wanted to become a domestic science teacher so that I could offer these women professional training that might help them earn a higher salary and afford better living conditions. Despite my qualifications, I was denied a teaching job because of the color of my skin. The pain of that disappointment inspired me to eventually establish a school that would give all sorts of girls a fair chance.

In the meantime, I did find a job in Philadelphia as an assistant editor for a Baptist newspaper. In 1900 I moved to Louisville, Kentucky to work as a secretary for the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention, then the largest organization of African American clergymen. Later that year at the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Richmond, I argued for the right of women to participate equally in the missionary activities of the denomination in a speech entitled, "How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping." As a result of my speech, the Woman's Convention, Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention was organized.

Image - Burroughs at the Baptist ConventionThe Woman's Convention primarily worked to raise money for the missions, which provided food, clothing, housing, and educational opportunities for poor people in the United States and around the world. As the Corresponding Secretary and President of the Woman's Convention for over sixty years, I publicized their cause nationwide in letters, articles, and speeches.

After many years of persistent effort, I was able to convince the National Baptist Convention and Woman's Convention to endorse the establishment of my school. For the site, I chose a farm house on six acres of land in the Lincoln Heights section of Washington. On October 19, 1909 I opened the doors of the National Training School for Women and Girls.

Image - National Training School for Women and GirlsMy curriculum emphasized vocational training, offering classes in domestic science, missionary work, social work, home nursing, clerical work, printing, dressmaking, beauty culture, shoe repair, and agriculture. There were also classes in grammar, English literature, Latin, drama, public speaking, music, and physical education. I also required all of my student to take a course in Black history. At the core of the curriculum was the study of the Bible. Nannie called her School the School of the "Three Bs– the Bible, The Bath, and The Broom."

In 1975, Mayor Walter E. Washington proclaimed May 10 to be Nannie Helen Burroughs Day in the District of Columbia–a fitting tribute to a remarkable woman who enriched the lives of all she served.
Home About Schedule Webcasts School List Teachers' Panel Reading Contact Us
  The Library of Congress >> Virtual Programs and Services
  November 20, 2003