Nannie Helen Burroughs was born in Orange, Virginia in 1883 to parents who had been born into slavery and freed. As a young woman, her widowed mother moved her to Washington, D.C., so her daughter could attended school. Nannie graduated with honors in 1896. That same year, she helped found the National Association of Colored Women, one of the most prominent organizations formed during the Black Women’s Movement. The group worked to promote the good works of black women.
Their original intention was "to furnish evidence of the moral, mental and material progress made by people of color through the efforts of our women". The NACW came about as a result of a letter written by James Jacks, the president of the Missouri Press Association, challenging the respectability of African American women, referring to them as thieves and prostitutes.
After graduating from high school, she had hoped to secure a position as a teacher in Washington, D.C., but without a college degree, she was denied every position she applied for. She then moved to Philadelphia to become associate editor of The Christian Banner, a Baptist newspaper.
Four years later, in 1900, she accepted a position in Louisville as secretary of the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention -- the national association of black Baptist churches formed after the Civil War, when black churches withdrew from white-dominated churches.
Later that year at the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Richmond, (she) 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 (her) speech, the Woman's Convention, Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention was organized.
(source: Library of Congress)
Burroughs formed women’s industrial clubs throughout the South teaching night classes in typing, stenography, bookkeeping, millinery, and home economics to Black women.
(source: National Women's History Museum)
In 1907 she was granted an honorary M.A. from Eckstein Norton University, a historically black college in Cane Spring, KY. Building on the support from the National Baptist Convention, she began planning the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls in Washington, D.C. -- to provide vocational training for African-American females, who did not have many educational opportunities available to them.
The school opened in 1909 and she was its first president. She gave the school its motto “We specialize in the wholly impossible.” She led her small faculty in training students through a curriculum that emphasized both vocational and professional skills, and directed courses on the high school and junior college level. Her students were to become self-sufficient wage earners and “expert homemakers.”
She continued to work in the social and political spheres as well. As part of a network of strong black club women in the first half of the twentieth century, Burroughs was active in the National Association of Colored Women, the National Association of Wage Earners, and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. A well known speaker and writer, she was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to chair a special committee on housing for African Americans. She appeared with Carter G. Woodson and Alain Locke at a meeting of the Association in 1927, and her talk was reported in the Journal of Negro History: “By a forceful address Miss Nannie H. Burroughs emphasized the duty the Negro owes to himself to learn his own story." It was around this time she published and distributed a leaflet entitled 12 Things The Negro Must Do For Himself.
Unlike most of her contemporaries, Burroughs believed that industrial and classical education were compatible. She also became an early advocate of African American history, requiring each of her students to pass that course before graduation. Burroughs was a demanding principal. According to observers, she was such a purist that she was physically pained when she encountered grammatical errors made by her students.Nannie Helen Burroughs never married. She devoted her life to the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls and remained its principal until her death in 1961. Three years later the institution was renamed the Nannie Burroughs School.