Nannie Helen Burroughs: “A Real Inspiration”

Nannie Helen Burroughs portrait

“Nannie Helen Burroughs . . . was determined to let nothing and no one prevent her from fulfilling her life’s purpose. To her the word no indicated an alternate route to a desired outcome, an obstacle to overcome, and an exercise in faith, perseverance, and hope" (The Story of Nannie Helen Burroughs by Sondra Washington). 

Burroughs was born May 2, 1879, in Virginia to parents who were former slaves. Burroughs spent her childhood in church, where she made a commitment to follow Jesus as a young girl. Burroughs’s family moved multiple times when she was a child, and she attended school in Washington, D.C., and Kentucky. Education was important to Burroughs; she valued school and excelled in it, eventually earning an honorary master’s degree from Eckstein Norton University in Kentucky. Burroughs was intelligent, driven, and a hard worker, resulting in a position as an associate editor of the magazine The Christian Banner. Her work as an editor prepared her for her position as the secretary for the National Baptist Convention’s (NBC) Foreign Missions Board, a job she took in 1898.1

 

Empowering Women

Burroughs was an active church member all her life, passionate about missions and women’s involvement in ministry. She insisted on women’s equality within the church and helped start the NBC’s Woman’s Auxiliary. In 1906, she kick-started Women’s Day, an annual event dedicated to teaching women public speaking skills and empowering them to become community leaders.2

From the time she was young, Burroughs dreamed of opening a school for women. She desired to see a place where women who did not have direct access to education could learn the skills necessary to be self-sufficient. Achieving her dream was not easy; it required patience, perseverance, and reliance on God. Her faith gave her the strength to keep trying, even when she faced many difficulties, including criticism, financial struggles, and rejection because of her skin color.3 The road to success was full of hardship, but through God’s power, her dream finally became a reality. In 1909, Burroughs convinced the NBC to fund a new project, the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, D.C. Burroughs’s dream had finally come true.

Burroughs became the president of the school and immediately threw herself into teaching. The school’s curriculum was specifically designed to equip women with the skills desired by the marketplace so they could get good jobs. Burroughs believed that the emphasis placed on a strong work ethic and positive character qualities would enable women to improve their home lives and impact their communities. Burroughs also insisted that a strong emphasis be put on African-American history and the study of Scripture, knowing personally how much each mattered.4

In addition to running the school, Burroughs was a strong civil rights activist. She helped start the National Association of Colored Women, was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to serve on a special committee, and was an active part of the publication of The Worker, a Christian magazine that emphasized the need for foreign and domestic missionaries.5

 

Partnering with WMU

Burroughs was an advocate for cooperation between races, and when The Worker lost funding from the NBC, she took the opportunity to pursue such a partnership. She collaborated with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) to keep the magazine going, a prime example of the partnership between races she deeply believed was both necessary and possible. She was, as observed by an audience member after one of her speeches, “50 years ahead of her time.”6

Burroughs had begun a friendship and partnership with Annie Armstrong, the first corresponding secretary (now called executive director) of WMU, in 1896. Working together, Burroughs and Armstrong saw that the National Baptist women were organized. Armstrong called on WMU to respond to its African American sisters, saying, “God . . . calls on us as on no others, to be their ‘neighbors.’ Shall we hear Christ’s voice in this and ‘go’ at His bidding?”

In her annual address to the 1902 meeting of the Woman’s Auxiliary, Burroughs reported on how the 2 organizations were joined in reaching more people and, because of the influence of Armstrong, were able to put missionaries on the field.

The partnership begun by Burroughs and Armstrong extended through the years. Today, WMU joins with sisters from all across the continent in Baptist Women of North America to involve women in missions.

Burroughs was also a friend of Martin Luther King Sr. and his wife, Alberta, a couple whose son would grow up to shake the nation and make wonderous strides for the civil rights movement. Burroughs began a friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1954, when she invited him to speak to the Women’s Auxiliary. From then on, the 2 were allies, partnering together and publicly supporting each other’s work. After an event at which both spoke, King said to Burroughs and the crowd, “Your remarks after my address were magnificent. You said in a few words more than most people could say in hours. It is always a real inspiration to listen to you.” 7

Burroughs passed away May 20, 1961, at the age of 82. The massive impact she made was evident as more than 800 people attended her funeral,8 all grieving the loss of a courageous and fierce woman. Today, her legacy continues in many ways, one of which is The Monroe School. This school descended from the original training school and holds tightly to Burroughs’s vision for a thorough and empowering education.9

 

Get to Work

We live in a world broken by sin, surrounded by things that are unrighteous and ungodly. It is easy to become discouraged and feel hopeless as if things will never change. Burroughs’s life challenges us to do something different and implores us to fight for what is right. Burroughs saw many unrighteous things in her lifetime, but instead of being discouraged by the world, she believed that through God’s power, things could change. Because she believed in that power, she got to work.

Burroughs’s fight for civil rights, women’s rights, and missions was not easy. From her, we learn that standing up for righteousness requires time, effort, and a thick skin—but it is worth it.

As Southern Baptists celebrate Racial Reconciliation Sunday in their churches February 10, let’s follow her example. Let’s believe that things really can get better. That good really can overcome evil. Let’s not give up fighting for what is right, even when it gets hard. Let’s work toward goodness without ceasing, knowing that we carry the power of the Holy Spirit inside us. Let’s get to work.

 


To learn more about Burroughs and her dynamic leadership, read WMU’s The Story of Nannie Helen Burroughs.


Selah Ulmer headshotSelah Ulmer is a recent seminary graduate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

 

 


Notes

1Errin Jackson, “Burroughs, Nannie Helen.” (BlackPast.org)

2The Nannie Helen Burroughs Project, “Who is Nannie Helen Burroughs.”  

3Errin Jackson, “Burroughs, Nannie Helen.”

4The Nannie Helen Burroughs Project, “Who is Nannie Helen Burroughs.” 

5Kings Institute, “Burroughs, Nannie Helen.” (Stanford University).

6The Nannie Helen Burroughs Project, “Who is Nannie Helen Burroughs.” 

7The Nannie Helen Burroughs Project, “Who is Nannie Helen Burroughs.” 

8The Nannie Helen Burroughs Project, “Who is Nannie Helen Burroughs.” 

9MonroeSchool.net


 

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