Profiles of lesser-known heroines in the fight for women’s rights

 

Nannie Helen Burroughs


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In the late 1890s, Nannie Helen Burroughs was unable to find a teaching position in the District of Columbia Public Schools, despite her thorough education and preparation. While the school system did hire black teachers at the time, it preferred light-skinned ones. Burroughs, she was told, was “too dark.” By 1909, Burroughs had founded The National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls, Inc., a vocational school catering specifically to African-American women who were denied other opportunities.

Burroughs’ zeal to “beat and ignore until death” the restrictions society presented to her burned throughout her life. A devout Baptist, Burroughs gained significant attention for her address at the National Baptist Convention in 1900. Her speech, titled “How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping,” launched the fight for women to have a greater say in the decision-making of the church. This demand for change was not entirely well-received.

“Who’s that young girl?” a man in the audience is quoted as saying. “Why don’t she sit down? She’s always talking. She’s just an upstart.”

Burroughs had a ready answer for him. “I might be an upstart, but I am just starting up.”

While still in school, Burroughs founded the Harriet Beecher Stowe Literary Society. At age 17, she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served in that organization for decades. In 1906, she introduced Woman’s Day to the Baptist Church, a program focused on educating women in public speaking and teaching them to be community leaders. In 1912, she began publishing The Worker, a magazine advocating for missionary work, both foreign and domestic. In 1931, she was appointed committee chairwoman, primarily concerning Negro Housing, by President Herbert Hoover. In 1934, she joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, throwing her energy into their demands that the attorney general include lynching in that year’s Crime Conference agenda.

At an NAACP rally, she declared to an energized crowd, “There are enough Negroes in Washington tonight to make Pennsylvania Avenue tremble…”

A white women who heard Burroughs speak in Florida that same year said, “She is not only up-to-date in her understanding and analyses of great questions, but she is 50 years ahead of her time.”

“Who’s that young girl?” a man in the audience is quoted as saying. “Why don’t she sit down? She’s always talking. She’s just an upstart.”

Burroughs had a ready answer for him. “I might be an upstart, but I am just starting up.”

Throughout her robust work and activism, Burroughs had both allies and detractors. She lost the support of the male-dominated National Baptist Convention, but joined ranks with and gained admirers such as Thurgood Marshall and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King called her “the first leader of Negro Women in America.”

She considered voting both a citizen’s right and their obligation, and pushed for stronger and more unyielding activism in her later years. In September of 1960, at age 81, she spoke at a Women’s Convention meeting. “The day of protest has come,” she said. “It has come out of centuries of suffering but that the ‘weapons’ of black warfare must not be frustration and hate. Rather, African-Americans must use education, improvement of home and family life, and Christian living to achieve their goals.”

Nannie Helen Burroughs died the following year on May 20, 1961 at age 82. It was said in her eulogy, “She is the last of the pioneer women in higher education. She was a voice crying in the wilderness, strong and loud, for equality of women with men.” The school she founded—The National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls, Inc.—was later renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School.