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 relevance 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 her 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, who transitioned in November 2017, under Project History on the About Page and Miss Burroughs' 1956 letter to her on the Documents 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 behavior 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" circa 1956.  On the Documents Page, there are articles which address her views on institutional responsibilities to our children. It seems that Nannie Helen Burroughs set standards against which we can measure our actions today. So, why not accept the challenge to assess whether her views and vision are relevant today?

A National Crusade

Politics, Religion and Pop Culture - Burroughs' 1956 crusade depiction of American life did not specifically speak to the role of politics in our lives. As a very religious person, she could best be described as being in a political party, but not of a political party.  However, she had spoken to the  issue earlier when addressing the role of our leaders in 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 vision 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 hence - a type of man and woman stronger and more durable mentally, socially and spiritually."

Politics and Religion was a subject of interest in the 1922 edition of the Missionary Review of the World,   page 453,  Negro Religious and Social Life:  (d) If the Negro's material progress blinds him to the need of the church...then what will be the outcome? White and Negro religious and philanthropic leaders still have much to do for the Negro race.  Much has been done; more remains to be done.  The work in the future will not be so easy as in the past.  Dr. C.V. Roman of Nashville, one of the most thoughtful and wisest of Negro leaders made the following observation: "Religion is a determining factor in political destiny. Religion softened the lot of the slave.  Religion brought emancipation. Religion built our schools and colleges, and if we ever reach the goal of real citizenship, it will come through religion. The operation, influence and effect of religion within the race and without will bring us nearer to the goal. Our present day task, and it is a large one, is to bring the Negro, educated and uneducated, to see and act on this great fundamental truth. ""We need to have a serious conversation about the religious implications of political positions (as opposed to simple conversations of 'what Christians believe' about the politician or position)...The whole point of Christian formation is that our faith commitments should make a difference in the way we live our lives." - Dr. John Hawthorne, Weekly Meanderings, 16 December 2017. Also, do the Documents Page comments in response to Politcs and Religion represent those of a "Modern Day" Nannie Helen Burroughs?

"Now it has never been never been more important that we all come together, find some common ground, spend some time listening to each other, and realize that we are more alike than we are not alike."  Tyler Perry's comments at the recent CMA Awards received a standing ovation. Do his comments introduce Pop Culture into the discussion as a new approach to dealing  with our problems today?  Or, do they sound familiar?  "...When I speak, they agree with me, laugh, give me standing ovations and applauds, but that's the end of it..." - Nannie Helen Buroughs to Mary Alice Dorsett, circa 1951.

Here are the views of two of our noted and historic Black pastors about this remarkable woman.

  • Dr. William Holmes Borders, Pastor of Atlanta's 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 L. Harrison, Friend and Pastor of Washington's Shiloh Baptist Church, in the eulogy at her Home Going Service in 1961: "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 is it an open, respectful and honest discussion?  Had you visited my website before November 10, 2017, you would have found it less direct in dealing with the issue of race relations in our country. In the midst of making this correction, I received a call from my best friend advising me of a New York Times Op-Ed of November 1I, 2017, Can My Children be Friends with White People? By Professor 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 other than an ordinary person. Through discussion, we might find how to integrate her unambiguous, and extremely direct and clear, views into today's actions. Her clear-eyed views tend to "take us out of our comfort-zone." From Faith and Social Justice - T.B. Masron, Levellers: "...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. 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..." Nannie Helen  Burroughs 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. 

In reference to Professor Yankah's Op-Ep, my best friend just happens to be white. We met in 1975 while in the military, and the joy of this relationship is more profound than our passion for golf and sharing our views about our children.  Our mutual respect led to each of us attending the Home Going Services of our mothers, Chris to Norfolk and me to New Jersey. There we met and shared stories with 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. Having said that, should the question be about black and white children being friends, as suggested by Professor Yankah? Or, is the issue about black and white children seeking common ground for cooperation, as they define the future of our country?  We need to decide what we take away from the below depiction of our children.

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

Nannie Helen Burroughs fought racism and also sought cooperation. Below are some historical examples of cooperation. I start with a personal example, because it is what I believe and witnessed the positive results.

Subject: Letter of Appreciation July 21, 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

  • The records show that Nannie Helen Burroughs' cooperative endeavors included: working on the Commission on Interracial Cooperation; religious activities with the Virginia Theological Seminary and College and Reverend Billy Graham; working with Una Roberts Lawrence, President of the Women's Missionary Union of the Southern Baptist Convention, on women's issues as well as receiving financial support for her school. They just happened to become wonderful friends.
  • To Black and White Women Audiences in Lakeland, Florida in 1934:  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 understanding and analyses of great questions, but she is fifty years ahead of her time."
  • White Woman's Final Tribute, 1964: "Miss Burroughs influence over her people can hardly 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."
  • Booker T. Washington in his 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech, where he stated that the races could work together as one hand while socially remaining as separate as the fingers.
  • Carter G. Woodson sought cooperation in the way of funding to support his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life, from such agencies such as the Carnegie Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Phelps Stokes Fund, the Rosenwald Fund, the Social Science Research Council, and the controversial Committee on Interracial Cooperation.
  • Mary McLeod Bethune, in her Last Will and Testatment stated: "I pray that my race learns to live harmoniously with the white race." 
  • President Obama's words accompanying the above are as follows: "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..." Taken together with the views and actions of the likes of Bethune and Burroughs, these words suggest to me that, as a minimum, we must seek the common ground to foster cooperation among our children. 

Nannie Helen Burroughs fought structural racism, sought and found cooperation between blacks and whites in religion, social interests, and education in the form of support for her school. While her work was primarily with, and about, women, its impact was far beyond just Black women's rights and respect. My study of her life and works show her to be a composite of some of the primary views of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Dr. King.  So, where is that cooperation (Tyler Perry's "common ground") today? Have we defined what it might look like? Will we recognize it when we see it? 

I found the December 17, 2017 article, Bonfire of the Academies, to be a good start at defining the problem: "...What of Martin Luther King's dream?...the content of our character...Left and Right historically disagree on the extent of current inequities in the current system, and on the wisdom of decision making.  Those on the Left tend to focus on the inequities in the system; those on the Right tend to argue for personal responsibility.  The Left tends to see structural unfairness in the system and is inclined to intervene. The Right tends to see a landscape of opportunity, and fears the unintended consequences of new initiatives.  Both positions have merit and, despite the frequent tenor of conversations between the factions, they are not mutually exclusive. Wisdom is likely to emerge from the tension between these worldviews, uniting good people around the value of a fair system that fosters self-reliance as it distributes opportunity as far as possible..."

Maybe the assessment described above is right! Maybe it's not right!  Alternatively, we could describe the problem differently. However described, I think the life and works of Nannie Helen Burroughs address the issues.  About Character: "I Am Somebody---I am a moulder of character in Nannie Burroughs" - Dr. William Holmes Borders in his 1943 poem. About Right, Left or Whatever: See her positions on the Documents Page articles, especially "Twelve Things the Negro Must Do for Himself " and "Twelve Things White Folks Must Stop Doing"  Known as a "Truth-teller" and one who spoke with extreme clarity, Nannie Helen Burroughs' views seem to take us out of our comfort-zone.  Dr. Earl L. Harrison, friend and Pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, described her as follows: "She was far above average in quick, intelligent thinking.  She was courageous and dynamic to the point that she was irresistible to the open-minded and contemptible to the jealous and preducied." In spite of that, her contributions to our race and country were so significant that we should not shy away from discussing her views.  Maybe we can use them as standards to govern our lives today.

Nannie Burroughs says: "Come on!"

Nannie Helen Burroughs

 As our society has become one of a more mundane nature, there may be a tendency by some to  dismiss her views 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."  She once declared: "A race transfoms itself through its own 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'!"

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, ergo, the articles on the Documents Page. As racial division today seems to question what our country means to us, Nannie helen Burroughs 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 Monmouth County Business & Professional Women's Council, Inc, established in 1950: "We are beholden to the past.  We are shaping the present.  We are responsible for the future."  We can agree or disagree with her position. But, 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 throughout society. She fought a good fight. She finished the course. She was a builder.


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