African-American History Education based in Annapolis, Maryland
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 Burroughs’ National Training School for Negro Women and Girls from 1947-51. Long after her graduation, Burroughs served as mentor and friend to Mary Alice.
I learned about their on-going connection during the 2010 Association for the Study of African-American Life and History convention, when attendee who visited my Nannie Helen Burroughs display told me about how Miss Dorsett constantly spoke about her. Upon introducing myself to her by phone, Mary Alive Dorsett immediately became my new best friend, requesting that I give my Nannie Helen Burroughs presentation at her birthday and then again at her funeral, which I did on February 3, 2011 at her 85th birthday in Tampa, Florida. Blessedly, I have not had to carry out the second half of that request; Miss Dorsett is still going strong more than six years later and constantly encourages me to continue to bring the views and vision of Nannie Helen Burroughs back into our lives today.
Mary Alice Dorsett Correspondence
Who was Nannie Helen Burroughs?
I had never heard of Nannie Helen Burroughs until 2008, when I found myself driving down Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue in northeast Washington, DC on my way to Langston Golf Course. When I asked my golfing buddies who was this woman to have a street named after her, they replied vaguely that she had founded a school. Curious to know more, I visited the campus a few days later. There I discovered that she founded the school for Negro Women and Girls in 1909 and had been a contemporary of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and James Weldon Johnson. Clearly a woman of substance, I wanted to know more. This led me to her papers archived at the Library of Congress and a two-year study of her life. The end result was The Nannie Helen Burroughs Project.
One of my first presentations was at a meeting of the Prince Georges’ County Chapter of the National Council of Negro Women in January 2013 where the chapter president admitted, “Colonel, we’ve heard about her. But, we don’t know about her.”
Learn More About Nannie Helen Burroughs
What was her Message?
Nannie Helen Burroughs’ message was about our behavior and how we conducted our lives, during a time when, as she described, circa 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 important roles of the home, church and school in preparing our children to become the parents, teachers, police officers, and political leaders of tomorrow.
A forceful and popular orator, Burroughs not only understood but also offered solutions to problems. For example, at a September 1960 National Baptist Alliance Women’s Convention, the year before her demise, Burroughs stated: “Black people must decide that they are done with satisfied ignorance and second-class citizenship.” In December of that year, she stated: “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 a national initiative to improve our lives.
A National Crusade to Working to Improve American life on All Fronts
Burroughs challenged family, religious, educational, social and political organizations and institutions to take seriously the investment in our children so that they would be prepared to be self-reliant and accept personal accountability. Here Burroughs seems to show her affinity for Frederick Douglass and his statement that, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Throughout her life, Burroughs travelled across the country speaking to a variety of social, educational and political groups.
Burroughs 1934 Speech to a Women’s Club in Lakeland, Florida The Eulogy at Burroughs' 1961 Home Going Service
From the above, it is clear that Burroughs’ message was understood and accepted throughout her life, begging the question below.
Why do we Need to Have a Discussion About Her Today?
The short answer is because Nannie Helen Burroughs has a legacy which should resonate with all of us, particularly in the Black community, the racial tension today seeming to be like in her day. In her 2008 Doctoral Thesis, Dr. Michele Mason writes about Burroughs 1934 response to a critic at Tuskegee Institute about her actions to help Blacks. In her normal direct manner of speaking, which seem to take us out of our comfort-zone, Burroughs responded: “…Some of us are working, writing, praying, living, sacrificing and fighting for better things. We are laboring to develop a type negro that will take it upon himself individually and collectively to labor and deliver the group from this body of death…to build the up the Negro’s mental, moral and spiritual equipment We are working to build up the Negro’s mental, moral, and spiritual equipment that he will have within himself the kind of power that overcomes every handicap and barrier…She stated that white supremacy and economic hardship were only part of the problem facing Negroes. She spoke of a crisis of the soul…”
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. She 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. Burroughs’ message is summed up well by the motto of the 1950s Monmouth County, NJ Women’s Club: “We are beholden to the past. We are shaping the present. We are responsible for the future.”
Although Burroughs developed her views on and vision for America, she understood that racism existed throughout the world. Starting with her 1905 keynote speech at the First Baptist World Alliance Congress in Hyde Park, London in 1905 and continuing through her advocacy for foreign missions in the National Baptist Convention, Burroughs believed that African-Americans had significant power, as a people, but that it required cooperation across racial and political lines. Politically, it is important to understand that Nannie Helen Burroughs was in a party, but she was not of a party. It is conceivable that given her perspective, today she might be an independent or even in a separate party, allowing her to leverage the best from both Republicans and Democrats.
- Burroughs Letter to Republican National Committee, 1933: “I have served the National Committee faithfully for the past twelve years…The Republican Party has made some colossal blunders in handling the Negro group. You have either been badly advised or you have followed your own mind without caring what the Negro is thinking…The time is past when the Republican Party can wait until election time to corral the Negro vote…”
- Burroughs Letter to President Roosevelt, 1940:” …It would seem that blind prejudice would rather feed the negro on crumbs that fall from the government’s billion-dollar tables than to allow him to work and feed himself…He is also the best spender because he spends all of his money with American merchants…This is not rue of other laborers who send some of their money ‘Back home’ to feed kin, to banks and to buy land.”
- Burroughs in 1960 in the Pittsburg Courier Newspaper: “…If the President of the United States cannot enforce the constitution, we don’t need their planks. The constitution is the floor on which this country is built, and the constitution is stronger than any plank that Kennedy or Nixon can write. We are sick and tired of this campaign ‘hooey’.
Nannie Helen Burroughs was very close to Dr. King and may even be viewed as a mentor. This probably was due to the relationship with his parents through their association with the Baptist Church. In letters to his parents Burroughs, she affectionately inquires: “How’s junior?” While such was not the case between her and Malcolm X., one could say that Burroughs views may have been equally, if not more, connected with those of Malcolm X. A. Peter Bailey’s book, Witnessing Brother Malcolm X: The Master Teacher: “As a Master Teacher” describes how: “… he spoke and taught with clarity, forcefulness and truthfulness about our past, our present and future.” This also tends to support the view that Malcolm and Martin held very similar views, just different ways of expressing them.
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How do the actions of our leaders of today compare with Burroughs’ actions to achieve the goal of assuring cooperation among our children in the future?
A 1964 Tribute
I believe that American society has become more mundane (both in the sense of “ordinary” and “irreligious”) than in Burroughs’ lifetime. Thus, some might reject her views because she was a deeply Christian woman. Dr. Sondra Washington relates the following in her book: The Story of Nannie Helen Burroughs, “…Known to kneel in prayer her school office every day at noon, her relationship with God was so strong that it overflowed into every aspect of her life and work, making it difficult to draw clear lines between religious, educational, political, and social interests.” I conclude from this that her religious beliefs strengthened her ability to set standards for how we conduct our lives.
Always a critical-thinker - a skill for which she credits her teachers at M Street School (now Dunbar High) in Washington, DC- Burroughs set high standards. Some say that the standards are generationally sensitive and no longer valid. I believe her standards recognize and are built upon the faith in God that brought us out of slavery, thusly forming a rational basis for today’s actions. In support of her thought-process, the story is told that Burroughs was challenged to support doing away with the 18th Amendment to the constitution (prohibition) because its intent was not being followed. In response, she is alleged to have said: “No, I disagree because when we get rid of the 18th, we will then start on the 13th, 14th and 15th (known collectively as Civil War Amendments, they granted equality to recently emancipated slaves). We don’t follow the Ten Commandments, but we don’t try to get rid of them.” Nannie Helen Burroughs sought balance in setting standards. She was also a “truth teller” who took people out of their comfort-zones. So, where are the standards now, or do we simply base our decisions and actions on our feelings?
Twelve Things the Negro Must Do for Himself and Twelve
Things White Folks Must Stop Doing
*Google to find her writing. Here again we see Burroughs’ balanced-approach to issues. However, her concentration was oriented on things under one’s control (our race), as opposed to concentrating on another’s actions. She believed that taking responsibility for your actions strengthened your position in dealing with others.
Burroughs states “…A race transforms itself through its leaders. It rises on its own wings, or is held down by its own weight. True leaders never set themselves apart. They are with the masses in their struggle. They simply got to the front first. Their only business at the front is to inspire the masses by hard work and noble example and to challenge them to “Come on.”
Are her views relevant today and, if so, where are we going? I believe firmly that we are all at the same intersection waiting with different ideas on how to get to the same place. Let’s begin to cross the intersection by discussing Nannie Helen Burroughs life and legacy. I challenge those who resist discussing Burroughs to state their reason. The time is now for us to Recognize the Opportunity, Accept the Responsibility, and Accept the Challenge to come together and discuss openly, honestly and respectfully Nannie Helen Burroughs views and vision for our country.
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I conclude this discussion maybe with one of Nannie Helen Burroughs’ thoughts that could have been the opener, because it may have helped with an understanding of her message. Therefore, I call upon you to help me by providing your views on the objective I’ve tried to achieve. She is, in my view, so simplistic in her approach to very complicated matters. Further, it seems her simplicity is universal, offering a standard against which to assess approaches in dealing with issues across the spectrum. While completing this text, I was listened to a C-PAN discussion on foreign affairs. Here’s what I think Nannie Helen Burroughs would have said to the guest reporter:
We waste too much time talking or writing about people who do not like us or about people whom we do not like. We forget that there is as much about us that other people dislike as there is about them that we dislike. Running other folk down is the most unprofitable business in which anyone can engage you. The only way to work ourselves and our cause UP is not to waste time talking other folk or other causes DOWN