This Month’s Woman in History: Nannie Helen Burroughs


Photo Credit: Nannie Helen Burroughs, 1909, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division: FloNight/Wikimedia Commons/PD US 

For women to take on the entrepreneurial spirit in the 21st century is not only accepted but supported. Women business owners have a lot of resources online and in their communities these days to help them build and grow their businesses in whatever field they choose. When they can’t get the job they want, they create it.

But in the early 20th century, this wasn’t the case. In spite of the rise of the suffragist movement during this period, ideas about women’s place were still hampered by the previous century’s separate spheres. Even progressive women like Adele Gossling, the protagonist of my new series, The Adele Gossling Mysteries, is looked down upon by the inhabitants of her new home because she prefers running her stationery store and helping the police solve crimes over marriage and children.

One woman who took the entrepreneurial spirit to new heights and opened many doors for African-American women at the turn of the century was Nannie Helen Burroughs. The daughter of former slaves, Burroughs took her high scholastic achievements and applied for a job with the Washington D.C. public school system. She didn’t get it. So, like many women entrepreneurs, she decided to create the job she wanted. Her dream was to open her own school for girls that would teach them how to make their own living and give them the courage, strength, and education to fight for the rights of their people. 

Burroughs began putting her plan into action by doing what many women entrepreneurs do: She worked at odd jobs to save up money to build her school. She solicited all the funds she could from the African-American community, refusing to accept donations from whites so she could dictate the curriculum of her school in her way. When she bought the buildings and land for her school, she did much of the work herself. She opened the doors to the National Training School for Women And Girls in 1909 and from the get-go, it was a huge success.

Photo Credit: Trades Hall, National Training School for Women and Girls, now the headquarters of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, taken by Farragutful on 8 July 2017: Farragutful/Wikimedia Commons/ CC BY SA 4.0 

Burroughs’ ideas of women’s education were progressive for her time. Like many New Women, she believed the sky was the limit to what girls could and should learn. At the same time, her school emphasized the importance of practical training so her girls would graduate with the skills to support themselves. The curriculum included courses in dressmaking and handicrafts along with literature and science. Like many New Women, Burroughs also believed in physical activity for girls, abhorring the previous century’s “delicate woman” and the school had its own basketball team. 

Burroughs’ school evolved with the times, such as teaching skills relevant to women seeking work in factories during World War II. Upon her death in 1961, the National Training School for Women and Girls was renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School. Today, the six-acre complex houses several facilities, including the headquarters of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, a group that works for civil rights and social justice, and a private high school.

Let’s celebrate this amazing woman educator, suffragist/feminist, and civil rights activist during this Black History Month!

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Author: tammayauthor

Writing has been Tam May’s voice since the age of fourteen. She writes stories set in the past that feature sassy and sensitive women characters. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which take place in the early 20th century and features suffragist and epistolary expert Adele Gossling whose talent for solving crimes doesn’t sit well with the town’s more conventional ideas about women’s place. She has also written historical fiction about women breaking loose from the social and psychological expectations of their era. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in the Midwest because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music) and concocting yummy plant-based dishes.