Nannie Helen Burroughs: Advocate for Self-Sufficient Black Women

Nannie Helen Burroughs and children at farm stand

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Nannie Helen Burroughs founded what was at the time the largest Black women’s organization in the United States and, with the organization’s sponsorship, founded a school for girls and women. She was a strong advocate for racial pride. Educator and activist, she lived from May 2, 1879, to May 20, 1961. 

Background and Family

Nannie Burroughs was born in north-central Virginia, in Orange, located in the Piedmont region. Her father, John Burroughs, was a farmer who was also a Baptist preacher. When Nannie was only four, her mother took her to live in Washington, DC, where her mother, Jennie Poindexter Burroughs, worked as a cook.


Burroughs graduated with honors from the Colored High School in Washington, DC, in 1896. She had studied business and domestic science. 

Because of her race, she could not get a job in the DC schools or the federal government. She went to work in Philadelphia as a secretary for the National Baptist Convention’s paper, the Christian Banner, working for the Rev. Lewis JordanShe moved from that position to one with the Foreign Mission Board of the convention. When the organization moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1900, she moved there.

Woman's Convention

In 1900 she was part of founding the Woman’s Convention, a women’s auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention, focused on service work at home and abroad. She had given a talk at the 1900 annual meeting of the NBC, “How Sisters Are Hindered From Helping,” which had helped inspire the founding of the women’s organization.

She was the corresponding secretary of the Woman’s Convention for 48 years, and in that position, helped recruit a membership which, by 1907, was 1.5 million, organized within local churches, districts, and states. In 1905, at the First Baptist World Alliance meeting in London, she delivered a speech called “Women’s Part in the World’s Work.”

In 1912, she began a magazine called the Worker for those doing missionary work. It died out and then the women’s auxiliary of the Southern Baptist Convention—a white organization—helped bring it back in 1934.

National School for Women and Girls

In 1909, Nannie Burroughs’ proposal to have the Woman’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention found a school for girls came to fruition. The National Training School for Women and Girls opened in Washington, DC, in Lincoln Heights. Burroughs moved to DC to be president of the school, a position in which she served until she died. The money was raised primarily from Black women, with some help from a white women’s Baptist mission society.

The school, though sponsored by the Baptist organizations, chose to remain open to women and girls of any religious faith, and did not include the word Baptist in its title. But it did have a strong religious foundation, with Burrough’s self-help “creed” stressing the three Bs, Bible, bath, and broom: “clean life, clean body, clean house.”

The school included both a seminary and a trade school. The seminary ran from seventh grade through high school and then into a two-year junior college and a two-year normal school to train teachers.

While the school stressed a future of employment as maids and laundry workers, the girls and women were expected to become strong, independent and pious, financially self-sufficient, and proud of their Black heritage. A “Negro History” course was required.

The school found itself in conflict over control of the school with the National Convention, and the National Convention removed its support. The school temporarily closed from 1935 to 1938 for financial reasons. In 1938, the National Convention, having gone through its own internal divisions in 1915, broke with the school and urged the women’s convention to do so, but the women’s organization disagreed. The National Convention then tried to remove Burroughs from her position with the Woman’s Convention. The school made the Woman’s Convention owner of its property and, after a fund-raising campaign, reopened. In 1947 the National Baptist Convention formally supported the school again. And in 1948, Burroughs was elected as president, having served as corresponding secretary since 1900.

Other Activities

Burroughs helped to found the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896. Burroughs spoke against lynching and for civil rights, leading to her being placed on a U.S. government watch list in 1917. She chaired the National Association of Colored Women’s Anti-Lynching Committee and was a regional president of the NACW. She denounced President Woodrow Wilson for not dealing with lynching.

Burroughs supported women’s suffrage and saw the vote for Black women as essential for their freedom from both racial and sex discrimination.

Burroughs was active in the NAACP, serving in the 1940s as a vice president. She also organized the school to make the home of Frederick Douglass into a memorial for that leader’s life and work.

Burroughs was active in the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, for many years. She helped found the National League of Republican Colored Women in 1924, and often traveled to speak for the Republican Party. Herbert Hoover appointed her in 1932 to report on housing for African Americans. She remained active in the Republican Party during the Roosevelt years when many African Americans were changing their allegiance, at least in the North, to the Democratic Party.

Burroughs died in Washington, DC, in May, 1961.


The school which Nannie Helen Burroughs had founded and led for so many years renamed itself for her in 1964. The school was named a National Historic Landmark in 1991.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Nannie Helen Burroughs: Advocate for Self-Sufficient Black Women." ThoughtCo, Jan. 30, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, January 30). Nannie Helen Burroughs: Advocate for Self-Sufficient Black Women. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Nannie Helen Burroughs: Advocate for Self-Sufficient Black Women." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 20, 2023).