We've heard of Nannie Helen Burroughs Ave in northeast Washington but realized we don't know anything about the woman it's named after. So, in honor of Women's History Month we set out to rectify this gap in our knowledge.
A primer: Born to former enslaved people, Burroughs was a leading educator, feminist and suffragist in the Washington, D.C., area throughout the early 20th century, After her application to teach at a D.C. public school was rejected in the 1890s, despite graduating from the prestigious M Street High School, Burroughs decided that if she could not get a job as a teacher, she would start her own school. She's the embodiment of the motto: "nevertheless, she persisted."
Her school was only the beginning of a long and illustrious career. She would build or lead nearly a dozen prominent organizations that advocated for greater civil rights and suffrage for African Americans and women. winning her a place among luminaries of the time, rubbing elbows with Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson, and later spending time with a young Martin Luther King Jr.
Burroughs served as president of her school until her death on May 20, 1961, and three years later, the school changed its name to the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in her honor.
Now, let’s take a little spin around the District of Columbia for the places touched by Nannie Helen Burroughs in life or the things named after her.
M Street School - 128 M STREET NW
M Street High School was one of the nation’s first high schools for African Americans. The school, also called Washington High School., was founded in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Negro Youth. It sent an unusually large number of its graduates to the nation’s leading colleges and universities in the North at a time when the Black population did not have equal access to quality education. M Street High School was an elite school that represented the upwardly mobile segments of the Black population.
Its teachers were unusually well-educated, far beyond those of most white schools, because of limited professional opportunities for Black professionals. Among the many teachers were Carter G. Woodson (founder of Black History Month) who taught French, Spanish, English, and history, and Christian Fleetwood, a recipient of the Medal of Honor. The school produced a high percentage of college graduates, sending graduates to Harvard, Yale, and Brown, among other places, and its alumni included many prominent educators and public figures.
Nannie Helen Burroughs graduated from M Street High School with honors in 1896, While at school, she organized the Harriet Beecher Stowe Literary Society, and studied business and domestic science. There she met her role models Anna J. Cooper and Mary Church Terrell, who were active in the suffrage movement and civil rights.
The building now houses the Perry School Community Center fighting poverty and helping residents of Washington.
National Training School for Women and Girls - 601 50TH STREET NE
Burroughs sought work as a domestic-science teacher in the District of Columbia Public Schools, but was unable to find a position. This prompted her to open her own school in 1908 when she was barely 30 years old. It was supported by the National Baptist Convention and funded and managed entirely by African-Americans. Refusing to rely on White donors, she financed much of the school using small donations from local community members. She also had help from a few prominent Black leaders. Maggie L. Walker, the first Black woman to run a bank in the United States, donated $500 (approximately $14,000 today)!
The school’s motto read: “Work. Support thyself. To thine own powers appeal.” The classes were taught by Burroughs herself and initially included 31 students but grew to attract students from as far away as Africa. The school focused on the three B's: the Bible, the bath, and the broom" and Burroughs created her own history course that was dedicated to teach African American women to be proud of their race. To graduate, all students were required to take a Black history course.
The Trade School, which was the school's main building on the six-acre campus, was constructed in 1927-28, and Mary McLeod Bethune was the featured speaker at its dedication. It now houses the offices of the Progressive National Baptist Convention as well as the Monroe School, a private junior-senior high school that continues Burroughs' legacy.
Nannie Helen Burroughs ran the school until her death in 1961, and in 1964 it was renamed in her honor. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1991.
National League of Republican Colored Women - 1115 Rhode Island Ave NW
Burroughs was active in many organizations that advocated for the rights of women, and African-American women, in particular, including the Women’s Auxiliary of the NBC, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and more. She also founded the National League of Republican Colored Women in the Logan’s Circle neighborhood. The home is now a private residence.
This organization became more popular after the passage and ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. As head of the organization, Burroughs encouraged Black women to exercise their newly recognized right to vote. In a correspondence to the group,she wrote:“Since Negro women have the ballot, they must not under-value it. The Race is doomed unless Negro women take an active part in local, state, and national politics.“
The Logan’s Circle area was ideal for Burrough’s National League of Republican Colored Women. In the early 1900s, many middle and upper-class Black families lived here and attracted a number of prominent African American writers, artists and educators including Alain Leroy Locke, the first African-American Rhodes Scholar and the acknowledged "Dean"— of the Harlem Renaissance. Educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune even purchased a house here which became the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women.
Constitution Hall - 1776 18th St NW
In 1931, President Herbert Hoover selected Burroughs to be the head of a committee to address the housing crisis for African-Americans after the Great Depression. The appointment was very much in keeping with Burroughs life-long dedication to the advancement and equality of African-Americans in the US. The announcement was made at Constitution Hall which is conveniently not far from the White House.
Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE
Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE, a street in the Deanwood area of DC, is named in her honor. Before that, it was called Dean Avenue after Dr. Julian Dean, the man who bought the original parcel of land in 1833 that gave rise to the surrounding neighborhood. Walking down this street, you'll find the Nannie Helen apartments and a mural, 100 Years of Afro-American History, which depicts the image of Burroughs and the gateway to her school, among others.
Curious? There's more!
Look up, down, and all around. Adventures can be found everywhere -- if you're curious enough to look. k for it