Nannie Helen Burroughs was born in Orange, Virginia May 2, 1879. When she was young she moved to Washington, D.C. with her formerly enslaved mother, where she excelled in school and graduated from M Street High School (now Paul Laurence Dunbar High School). While in Washington, she met people like Anna J. Cooper and Mary Church Terrell, amazing Black women leading the way in the suffrage movement and civil rights.
For a time, Burroughs lived in Louisville, KY and worked for the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention (NBC). She was a founder of the Women’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention and served as its president for about 13 years. She, along with Mary McLeod Bethune, founded and led the National Association of Wage Earners, a Black women’s labor organization. Other than Cooper, Terrell, and Bethune, Burroughs knew and worked with many of the Black leaders of the day, including Maggie L. Walker, a business leader who gained prominence when she became the first woman to own a bank in the United States. Burroughs was active in advocating for greater civil rights for Black women and in labor issues. She believed that women should be able to do more than domestic work; they should have the opportunity to receive an education and job training.
For many years Burroughs had wanted to open her own school. Eventually she managed to gather enough money from smaller donations and the Women’s Auxiliary and National Baptist Convention making it possible for her to buy several acres of land in Washington, D.C. There, in 1909, she opened the National Training School for Women and Girls.
The school had an international student body and offered both academic and vocational courses. This included everything from cooking, sewing, laundering, printing, barbering, and shoe repair, to public speaking, music, and physical education. The school was quite successful and by 1920, there were over 100 students. By 1928, the Trades Hall, now a historic landmark, was built and its dedication in December 1928 featured many notable speakers including Mary McLeod Bethune.
By 1938-1939, the school was renamed as the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls. The school continued to look for ways to further enhance its program. It was still going strong in 1951, when it had a fundraising drive. Nannie Helen Burroughs ran the school until she died in 1961 and is buried in Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Prince George's County, Maryland. Today, the Progressive National Baptist Convention occupies the building she built. An article from the November 18, 1911 issue of The Bee, provides an inspirational picture of her and her work in its opening paragraph:
Certainly the most creditable work that is being done by colored women any where in the world, is at Lincoln Heights, in this city. Creditable because it is a necessity; creditable because it is being well done; creditable because it is far reaching; creditable, because it was not inspired by an opportunity to secure educational aid through a beneficent outside gift; creditable because it has filled a niche in the educational world that no other school is filling; creditable because it shows what the women of the race can do. 1
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