African American History Education based in Annapolis, Maryland
Preface: This project is about the views and vision for our race and country set forth by this remarkable African American woman who has been lost to history. While it is about Nannie Helen Burroughs' message, I want to be clear that I am a willing messenger, because I believe it is relevant as we deal with problems, across the board, in our country today. Others may disagree with her message, which is why I believe a reasonable goal is to have a discussion across our country about its relevancy today. I am indebted to the women historians of both races who documented the life and works of Nannie Helen Burroughs. Their scholarly work has served as the basis for this effort.
Colonel (US Army, Retired) James E. Wyatt , Founder
The people do not apply my teachings. When I speak, they agree with me, laugh, give me standing ovations and applauds, but that’s the end of it. Perhaps when I am dead, if someone will share my teachings with them, they might apply them. If so, they will improve themselves economically, intellectually, politically, and socially, and this will make them first-class citizens. I leave this responsibility to you.
The above are the words of Nannie Helen Burroughs as told to her student Mary Alice Dorsett, who attended the National Training School for Women and Girls from 1947-51. Long after graduation Miss Burroughs served as mentor and friend to Mary Alice. See more about Mary Alice Dorsett under Project History on the About Page. Added significance of Burroughs' task to Mary Alice Dorsett was made evident to me during one of my early presentations to a chapter of the National Council of Negro Women in 2013 where the chapter president said, "Colonel, we've heard about her. But, we don't know about her."
What was her Message?
Nannie Helen Burroughs’ message was about the type of character and conduct needed to face our challenges and overcome obstacles, especially as she described in 1956: “Today terrible conditions and serious tensions and conflicts are tormenting the lives of people in both races in every section of the country.” Burroughs believed in respect for all people, vigorously fighting racism and discrimination while seeking cooperation between the races. She recognized the importane of our responsibility to the children, constantly challenging the family, religious, educational, social and political institutions to take seriously our roles in preparing our children to become the parents and leaders of tomorrow. She always emphasized the need for personal responsiblity, self-reliance and accountability. Here Burroughs seemed to show the reason she became such a strong advocate for Frederick Douglass and his quote: "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men."
Burroughs was a forceful and popular orator who not only understood but also offered solutions to the country's problems. For example, at a September 1960 National Baptist Women’s Convention, the year before her demise, Burroughs stated: “Black people must decide that they are done with satisfied ignorance and citizenship.” In December of that year, she declared: “The day of the protest has come out of centuries of suffering but that the ‘weapons’ of black warfare must not be frustration and hate. Rather, African Americans must use education, improvement of home and family life, and Christian living to achieve their goals.” Her solution is modeled in what she called "A National Crusade Working to Improve American Life on All Fronts".
- 1934 Speech in Lakeland, Florida to National Association of Colored Women: After her speech, a white woman rose to her feet and exclaimed: "I do not deal in superlatives, but Miss Burroughs has given a matchless address. She is not only up-to-date in her analyses of great questions, but she is 50 years ahead of her time." While Burroughs seemed to think the people did not apply her teachings, the Lakeland speech reception suggested that there were those who understood and embraced her message. Dr. Earl Harrison expressed a similar view in his book, The Dream and the Dreamer: "She was irresistible to the open-minded and contemptible to the jealous and prejudiced." Below, the broader nature of Nannie Helen Burroughs' message was brought into focus at the end of her journey.
- Eulogy at Her 1961 Home Going Service by Dr. Earl Harrison, Pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church: "This woman was full of good works. She is the last of the pioneer women in higher education. She was a voice crying in the wilderness, strong and loud, for equality of women with men. She was a bondaged woman, enslaved to an idea." As the last of the pioneer women in higher education, Dr. Harrison was referring to Nannie Helen Burroughs, Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Mary McLeod Bethune. They were known as "The 3 B's of Education" and shared the same hopes and dreams in preparing our children for the role they would play in the future of our country. See the Documents Page.
Why do we Need to Have a Discussion About Her Today?
The short answer is that the conditions we are facing today are similar to those of her day. Nannie Helen Burroughs' message offers a comprehensive approach to dealing with the racial tension, attacking white supremacy's structural issues while building up our character to face all obstacles. Through discussion we might find how to integrate her views into today's actions, much as her past did not seem to adversely impact her clear-eyed thinking about the future. Despite what historian Karen Smith described as “double marginalization” by both race and sex in both church and society, Burroughs never took on the role of victim and was rarely angry. She refused to accept defeat and accepted that progress comes in stages. She was steeped in pride, determination and hope, and wanted our people to be the same. Burroughs told this story about her grandmother, Maria Poindexter: “She would say, Yes, honey, I was a slave. But I wasn’t no slave, I was just in it. They may have slaved my body, but they didn’t slave my mind."
Moreover, Burroughs was pragmatic in her “revolutionary patience” as historian Dorothee Soelle put it. All compromises were temporary—stages to further gains later. Burroughs constantly pushed for change while working within the system. She was critical of both blacks and whites, scolding Blacks to take responsibility for full citizenship, and demanding that Whites reject the attitudes and policies of white supremacy. She challenged both races to cooperate in building a just society, because of her love for children of all races who represented the future of our country.
How do the actions of today's leaders compare with Burroughs’ efforts to ensure cooperation among our children of today as they become the adults of tomorrow?
White Woman Final Tribute, 1964: "Miss Burroughs' influence over her people can hardly be estimated. She had dynamic power. Measured, not as a Negro woman, but as a woman, she had extraordinary ability and her living faith in God and in her children, of whatever race, her spirit of services and sacrifice energized her gifts as only faith and love can do."
Nannie Helen Burroughs was known as a critical-thinker, and her approach to the the most difficult issues was balanced. This is shown in her 1928 writing: "Twelve Things the Negro Must Do for Himself" and "Twelve Things White Folks Must Stop Doing" See the Documents Page. As our society has become one of a more mundane nature, there may be a tendency to dismiss Nannie Helen Burroughs because she was a deeply religious woman. However, Dr. Sondra Washington addresses this possible concern in her book, The Story of Nannie Helen Burroughs: Know to kneel in prayer in her school office everyday at noon, her relationship with God was so strong that it overflowed into every aspect of her life, making it difficult to draw clear lines between her religious, educational, political and social interests."
Are Nannie Helen Burroughs' views relevant today? Maybe yes, maybe no. But, we owe it to our children to Recognize the Opportunity, Accept the Responsibility, and Seize the Challenge to come together and discuss them openly, honestly and respectfully, thereby allowing us to rationally accept, reject, or modify and integrate some of her views into our actions today, as we frame the future. The good news is I am being contacted by a growing number of our BLACK WOMEN, expressing an interest in Nannie Helen Burroughs' views on faith and family, especially as relates to the character of our children.
Nannie Helen Burroughs committed literally all of her views and vision about our race and country to writing. Unfortunately, there is no audio or video recording of her life. However, we could consider opening the discussion about her views and vision for America with the chapter entitled, Put The Lump In The Leaven, in her book, Think on These Things, Fifth Printing -1982, where she addresses our struggles and aspirations: Democracy is like a lump of leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of a meal, until the whole was leavened...All social changes are the reult of work. Democracy brings change. Democracy means continuous, progressive readjustment. Of course, that means danger. There are always those who fear change. For change threatens established things. Slowly, but surely, the yeast of Democracy is permeating the social order. It will continue until the whole lump is leavened. The nation will eventually rise above the injustice and race prejudice. keep on believing, praying and working..."O beautiful for pilgrim feet...O beautiful for patriot dream...America! America! God shed his grace on thee. And crown thy good with brotherhood...From sea to shining sea!" In the fullness of time, God will shed his grace on America.
She lived her life in the tradition of New Jersey's 1950-2004 Monmouth County Business & Professional Women's Council: "We are beholden to the past. We are shaping the present. We are responsible for the future." Because of her dedication and contributions to the betterment of our children, race and country, Nannie Helen Burroughs demands no less than an open and honest discussion about her views and vision for America, especially from the women for whom she fought so resolutely in the Church and Society. She fought a good fight. She finished the course. She was a builder.