This is part of an ongoing Washington Informer series about the Women’s Suffrage Movement and an initiative that includes Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that will use the lens of history, the fabric of art and culture and the venue of the public square to shine a light into dark places, equipping all with a compass to chart the way forward. The initiative lives in the institutional home of the Washington Informer Charities.
Nannie Helen Burroughs established the National Training School for Women and Girls, which became a major influence nationally in the education of Black women on land she purchased in the District of Columbia.
An educator, feminist, businesswoman and suffrage supporter, Burroughs is another unsung hero of the suffragist movement.
Burroughs, who was also an orator, religious leader and civil rights activist, was born on May 2, 1879. She died on May 20, 1961.
Burroughs left behind quite the legacy — including helping Black women of the suffragist movement through the toughest of times.
During her life, and after she died, Burroughs arguably became one of the most quoted suffragists of her time.
Among the more memorable were:
• “I know when I look good, I feel good. I know when I come home and my house is in order, everything else seems to fall into place for me. Shouldn’t we strive for that all of the time?”
• “Having standards isn’t really for anyone else. You should want to have them for yourself.”
• “People, a vast majority of people, are fakers and shakers when it comes to serving their God. Sure, they may be able to quote scripture. They can clutch their Bibles and Torahs and Korans and put on the face of piety, but very few people actually live the truth of their faith.”
• “What is your purpose? Why are you here? Start small and find out.”
• High standards can be contagious. But it doesn’t necessarily happen through osmosis. Sometimes you have to budge people into doing the right thing — either by example or in a more obvious way.”
Burroughs was born to a formerly enslaved couple living in Orange, Virginia. Her father died when she was young, and she and her mother relocated to D.C., according to her biography on the website of the National Park Service.
Burroughs excelled in school and graduated with honors from M Street High School (now Paul Laurence Dunbar High School). Despite her academic achievements, Burroughs was turned down for a D.C. public school teaching position. Some historians speculate that the elite Black community discriminated against Burroughs because she had darker skin.
Undeterred, Burroughs decided to open her own school to educate and train poor, working African American women.
She proposed her school initiative to the National Baptist Convention. In response, the organization purchased six acres of land in northeast D.C., according to the NPS.
Reportedly Booker T. Washington did not believe African Americans would donate money to found the school, but Burroughs was adamant not to count on funds from wealthy white people.
Instead, she relied on small donations from Black women and children from the local community, and she eventually did raise enough money to open the National Training School for Women and Girls.
The NPS reported that Burroughs also advocated for greater civil rights for African Americans and women.
At the time, Black women had few career choices. Many did domestic work like cooking and cleaning.
Burroughs believed women should have the opportunity to receive an education and job training. She wrote about the need for Black and white women to work together to achieve the right to vote. She believed suffrage for African American women was crucial to protect their interests in an often discriminatory society.
“A lot of people endured a lot of hardship, humiliation, suffering and pain,” Burroughs once said. “The least I can do is be my best, live my best life, and treat myself and my surroundings with respect.”