NAACP pioneer William Picken described Nannie Burroughs this way: “No other person in America has so large a hold on the loyalty and esteem of the colored masses as Nannie H. Burroughs. She is regarded all over the broad land as combination of brains, courage, and incorruptibleness.” Born in the Gilded Age in 1879, Nannie Burroughs was fortunate to be born into a family of ex-slaves who were able to establish a comfortable existence in Virginia, affording young Nannie a good education. Nannie applied for a job as a domestic science teacher and wasn’t hired because she was “too dark.” Later, she was turned down for a job as a government clerk because she was a black woman.
Nannie began dreaming of a way to prepare black women for careers that freed them from the traps of gender and bias. Nannie worked for the national Baptist Alliance for fifty years, starting as a bookkeeper and secretary. In her spare time, she organized the Women’s Industrial Club, providing practical clerical courses for women. Through the school she founded in 1909, the National Training School for Women and Girls, she educated thousand of black American women as well as Haitians, Puerto Ricans, and South Africans to send them into the world with the tools for successful careers. Her program emphasized what she called the three Bs: the Bible, the Bath, and the Broom, representing “clean lives, clean bodies, and clean homes.”
An advocate of racial self-help, Nannie worked all her life to provide a solid foundation for poor black women so they could work and gain independence and equality. She practiced what she preached. At one point, she wrote to John D. Rockefeller for a donation to her cause. He sent her one dollar with a note asking what a business-woman like her would do with the money. She purchased a dollar’s worth of peanuts and sent them to him with a note asking him to autograph each one and return them to her. She would then sell each one for a dollar.
She founded the Harriet Beecher literary society as a vehicle for literary expression and was also active in the antilynching campaigns. She gave Sojourner Truth a run for her money with dramatic speech-making and stirring lectures such as her headline-making speech in 1932: “Chloroform your Uncle Toms! What must the Negro do to be saved? The Negro must unload the leeches and parasitic leaders who are absolutely eating the life out of the struggling, frightened mass of people.”
One of her students once said that Nannie considered “everybody God’s nugget.” Nannie Burroughs’ pragmatic “grab your own bootstraps” approach to racial equality offered that chance to everyone who came into her purview.
“The training of Negro women is absolutely necessary, not only for their own salvation and the salvation of the race, but because of the hour in which we live demands it. If we lose sight of the demands of the hour we blight our hope of progress. The subject of domestic science has crowded itself upon us, and unless we receive it, master it and be wise, the next ten years will so revolutionize things that we will find our women without the wherewithal to support themselves.”— Nannie Helen Burroughs