Nannie Helen Burroughs Project

Lost to History: One African American Woman's Views on How to Make Our Country a Better Place.

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Project Goal: To Open a Discussion Across America, Especially in Our Black Community, About the Relevancy of Her Views to Our Lives Today.

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

QuotesThe 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.Quotes

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, a Christian institution. 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 importance 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 responsibility, 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 second-class 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".  Do we need more specific discussion today about the roles/actions of the home/family and church in the lives of our children? 

Politics and Religion - Burroughs addresssed the issue in the spring of 1934.  As the first woman to give the commencement speech to a Tuskegee Institute graduating class, where 6,000 blacks and whites crowded the college grounds, she responded to a critic as follows: "...White supremacy and economic hardship are only part of the problem..." She spoke of a crisis of the soul and the need for leaders  with long-range vison who can see fifty or a hundred years hence and plan to that end. Burroughs continued: "This will develop the next generation, whether it be twenty-five or fifty or a hundred years hense - a type of man and woman stronger and more durable mentally, socially and spiritually." Is PastorG a "Modern Day" Nannie Helen Burroughs? See her views on the Documents Page.

A National Crusade

Below are several views describing the nature of this remarkable woman.

  • 1934 Speech in Lakeland, Florida to the 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."
  • Dr. William Holmes Borders, Pastor of Atlanta Wheat Street Baptist Church and Morehouse College Religious Department Instructor, in his 1943 poem, I AM SOMEBODY:  "I Am Somebody---I am a moulder of character in Nannie Burroughs."
  • Dr. Earl Harrison, Pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church and Personal Friend,  in his book, The Dream and the Dreamer: "She was irresistible to the open-minded and contemptible to the jealous and prejudiced."
  • Eulogy at Her 1961 Home Going Service by Dr. Earl Harrison: "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, as described in Burroughs' above 1956 message. We do seem to be having a discussion, but not nearly to the degree and with the openess and honesty required. However, if you had visited my website by yesterday, November 10, 2017, you would have found it less direct in dealing with the issue of race in our country. In the midst of making this correction today, I received a call from my best friend advising me of the New York Times OP-ED of November 1I, 2017, Can My Children be Friends with White People? by Mr. Ekow N. Yankah. Yes, God does work in mysterious ways.  So, I suggest you read the opinion piece before proceeding and join the discussion.

Nannie Helen Burroughs' message offers a comprehensive approach to dealing with the racial tension, attacking white supremacy structural issues while building up our character to face all obstacles. A study of her life suggests that she was not just an ordinary person; however, through discussion we might find how to integrate her unambigious 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 sex and race 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. While highly respected in the black community because of her many contributions, as cited in the House of  Representatives Statement of Honorable Eleanor Norton Holmes on the Documents Page, Burroughs was equally respected in the white community. The records show cooperative endeavors to further race relations in the country, such as her work on the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and religious activities with the Virginia Theological Seminary and College and Reverend Billy Graham. Of particular note is the cooperation between Burroughs and Una Roberts Lawrence, President of the Women's Missionary Union of the Southern Baptist Convention  in support of women's activities in the Southern  Baptist Convention and National Baptist Convention. Lawrence also played a major role in raising funds to Burroughs' National Training School for Women and Girls.  These two remarkable women worked through the differences of race and disgreements on issues to become  wonderful friends.  However, I hasten to point out that the driving force behind their cooperative relationship  was a greater good, i,e., the betterment of the Negro race and our country, not friendship.

Incidentally, I met my best friend ever in 1975, and Chris just happens to be white. In additon to our time together in the military and our passion for golf, our mutual respect led to each of us attending the Home Going Services of our mothers. There we met and shared stories with the respective family members, who had heard so much about us.  Our shared views and values represent the reason we are in constant contact by phone to this today, discussing the issues which are dividing our country.  

To a Black and White Women Audience in Lakeland, Florida in 1934:  After her speech, a white woman rose to her feet and exclaimed, "I not deal in superlatives, but Miss Burroughs has given a matchless address.  She is not only up-to-date in her understanding and analyses of great questions, but she is 50 years ahead of her time."

  • White Woman's Final Tribute, 1964:  "Miss Burroughs' influence over her people can hardly  the be estimated.  She had dynamic power. Measured not 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.

I start the below depiction with the importance of history to our children. I believe we have the obligation to present to our children the complete story about how our leaders dealth with critical issues during their time and how they projected their views for the future. Racial tensions today clearly represent one of those critical issues. I do not suggest that their views are correct, but we owe it to our children to have an open and rational discussion. My project is about Nannie Helen Burroughs and her views and vision for America are thoroughly presented. As shown on the Documents Page, Mary McLeod Bethune who founded the National Council of Negro Women expressed her views about race relations in her Last Will and Testament: "...I pray that my race learns to live harmoniouly with the white race..." In the below, as President Obama looks up to see the children of different ethnic groups, the caption for the photo reads: "No one is born hating another person because of his skin color or his background or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love..."  President Obama's words, taken together with the views of Bethune and Burroughs, suggests to me that all of us, black and white, have a responsibility to teach our children how to love and respect each other.  Those leaders give added significance to Tyler Perry's recent declaration: "We need to stop fighting and embrace the fact that we have more in common than differences."  I recognize that, for political or other reasons, tolerance discussions today go beyond black and white, and I address that in my Closing Statement on the Documents page.

Know Our History. Know Our Culture. Know Ourselves. Be Proud! Nannie Helen Burroughs - Fought Racism, Sought Cooperation - America's Future? Obama

Subject: Letter of Appreciation                                                                                                                                                                       21 Jul 1972

To: LTC James E. Wyatt, Commanding Officer - 1st Battalion, School Brigade

I wish to take this opportunity to express the gratitude of the entire Fort Monmouth community...The initiative you have shown in organizing such things as the first racial seminar on this installation in 1970, the Racial Talk-Back Sessions held monthly, and the recent Black Awareness Week activities, have added immeasurably in the attainment of our goal of racial harmony here at Fort Monmouth...

V. C. Devan - Colonel, Commanding

I inserted the above to show that my thoughts about race relations are not new. However, my actions intensified when I discovered Nannie Helen Burroughs in 2008, as you will see on the About Page. And, yes, Burroughs led to my seeking more knowledge about Mary Mcleod Bethune, where I found her Last Wll and Testament.

In completing my thoughts about the past, present and future, I  refer to Helen Burroughs being the driving force behind the establishment of the Frederick Douglass Museum in Washington, DC. In a 1935 Afro-American newspaper article, she exclaimed: "People are funny and don't know it.  They are always getting upset, excited, hilarious, pompous, chesty or satisfied over something that doesn't amount to anything of vital importance. They get all worked up over imaginary insults.  Just note they are feigning to be awfully mad because Frederick Douglass ran behind in the race for a place in the Hall of Fame.  They are just playing, because many of us are not bothered about having the name of Frederick Douglass pertpetuated; if we were, we have a mighty "weedy patch" [reference to the rundown condition of Douglass' home site] way of showing it.  If people loved and cared to cheerish the name of Frederick, they would make that fourteen acre plot known as "Cedar Hill" look like Mount Vernon.  Washington fought for liberty for the colonists. Douglass fought for freedom for the slaves.  One deserves as much honor as the other.  The shrine of one should be as sacred as the shrine of the other."  One small school in southern Michigan has done just that, placing them ahead of the power curve over Frederick Douglass' home state of Maryland in paying tribute to him.   Hillsdale College, a Christian institution, initiated discussions on honoring him in 2002, and erected a statue of Frederick Douglass on campus directly across from that of President Lincoln in May of 2017.  The school opened in 1844 with blacks and women being allowed admission.  Character is the essense of Hillsdale's academic program, thus connecting it with Nannie Helen Burroughs on three fronts,  the ideals of Frederick Douglass, Christian institutions, and the words in Reverend William Holmes Borders' 1943 poem:  "I AM Somebody---I am a moulder of character in Nannie Burroughs" The leaders in our educational and religious institutions should capitalize on the ideals and actions of Hillsdale College and Nannie Helen Burroughs in uniting our country.  Nannie Helen Burroughs would say, "Come On!"                                                                                                                     

Nannie Helen Burroughs

Nannie Helen Burroughs was known as a critical-thinker, and her approach to the most difficult issues was balanced.  This is shown in her 1928 writings: "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 by some 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:  "Known to kneel in prayer in her school office every day 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. 

This remarkable woman 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, her views and vision for America are summed up in 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 result 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.



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