Lost to History and the Black Church: One African American Woman's Views on How to Make Our Country a Better Place. "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell’s 1949 published novel, “1984”
Project Goal: For the sake of the future of our children and country, to include Nannie Helen Burroughs’ views (Christian living, critical-thinking, search for common ground) in today’s divisive racial, political and educational rhetoric.
African American History Education based in Annapolis, Maryland
As I write about the life and works of Nannie Helen Burroughs, I want to acknowledge and make clear that I am not a historian, nor as some may say, scholar. Therefore, if one wants to accuse me of plagiarism, I plead guilty. I have used the resources of the Library of Congress and the writings of many historians and others, almost exclusively women, for the information presented. In addition to the Library of Congress, the primary sources are: 1. Dr. Ann Michele Mason's 2008 Doctoral Dissertation: Nannie H. Burroughs' Rhetorical Leadership During the Inter-War Period; and, 2. Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas' 2010 Book: Jesus, Jobs and Justice. I thank them and I thank you for joining me, as we review and discuss the views and vision of a remarkable black woman, who is lost to history.
In the background of the below image, see a photo of Nannie Helen Burroughs. It is part of a new permanent exhibit in the DC MLK Library, scheduled for reopening in late September after a major renovation. A video shows her relationship with Dr. King and his family, in addition to her life and work.
The life and works of Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961) are reflected in the below image overview. Her views and vision for our race and country are relevant and needed to address the issues facing us today. Therefore, I seek your help in disseminating information about her to our leaders, the masses, and especially our women for whom she fought so gallantly. I encourage you to offer suggestions, positive and negative, about the content and presentation. Posts on The Nannie Helen Burroughs Facebook make reference to the website. Please join us.
Dr. Kelly Miller (Howard University 50-year student, professor and administrator): "...Tracking her was like trying to catch the wind in my hand. She moved at an extraordinary pace, touching down on literally every aspect of Negro life for over fifty years..."
Dr./Reverend Earl L. Harrison (Pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, DC 1930-1971, and friend): "...She was far above average in quisk intelligent thinking. She was courageous, charming and dynamic to the point that she was irresistible to the open-minded and contemptible to the jealous and prejudiced."
Justice Thurgood Marshall: "All of us are forever indebted to you for the long hard fight you have made for our people. You will forever be an inspiration to all of us.""
Dr. Sondra Washington in her book: The Nannie Helen Burroughs Story: "...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 her religious, educational, political and social interests...".
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The above image shows the National Training School for Women and Girls, established by Nannie Helen Burroughs in Northeast Washing, DC in 1909. While she was known as a religious, educational and civil rights leader, the school is recognized as her greatest achievement and contribution to society. Mayor Walter Washington recognized this and in 1975 declared May 10, as "Nannie Helen Burroughs Day" in Washington, DC. In spite of differences she had with W.E.B Dubois, the school had a Bi-lateral education curriculum, although the school was established as a vocational institution as advocated by Booker T. Washington. She even insisted that books written by Carter G. Woodson be used to teach her students black history. The following excerpt from an article entitled "There's Nobody Home", circa 1942, seems to capture Dr. Sondra Washington's views about the intersection of Burroughs' life and work and "her relationship with God", especially for our girls: "...Our race will be morally bankrupt if parents do not put first things first in the care and protection of their daughters. If they must be away all day, they should send their daughters to the best christian boarding school, so they can get the kind of training that will prepare them for the great day of economic competition that is surely coming. Our greatest desire is to send young women out from this school to contribute their part in helping to improve home life and remake their communities. We insist that every girl should know how to do at least one thing superbly well. To this end, we offer standard academic courses - junior high, high school, junior college and trade courses. Our three-fold purpose is: 1.Develop every student in positive character traits - the right attitude towards work and pride and skill in their chosen profession. 2.Prepare them to enter competition with any and all workers engaged in the same field, without fear or apology. 3.Prepare them to clean up the environment in which they live. We call our school "The school of 3 B's, Bible, Bath and Broom" - symbolic of clean lives, clean bodies, and clean homes...The race that excels in these three instruments is the most highly civilized. The America of tomorrow will stress skill and pride in those services that contribute most to the health, strength and character of each individual in the nation, wherever he or she lives, and in the definite improvement of home life."
Nannie Helen Burroughs passed in 1961, and The National Trade School for Women and Girls transitioned to being named The Nannie Helen Burroughs. It closed in 2013, as co-educational kindergarten to sixth-grade. Dr. Aurelia R. Downey's book, A Tale of Women, tells the story of Miss Burroughs, Dr. Rebekah Jefferson Calloway (principal 1961-1968) and Dr. Aurelia R. Downey, who served as principal for nineteen years. It should be noted that Dr. Earl Harrison, who eulogized Miss Burroughs, briefly served as an interim principal during this period. Miss Burroughs is known to have said: "My successor must be someone who shares my philosophy...She must be a Christian in character and principle, a woman of faith and prayer."
There is no audio or video of Nannie Helen Burroughs. But, her teachings have been brought forward by Mary Alice Dorsett, a student at The National Trade and Women's School for Women and Girls:
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.
I had the good fortune of meeting and sharing a wonderful relationship with Alice Mary Dorsett for six years. I spoke at her eighty-fifth birthday party in Tampa, Florida in 2011. She passed in 2017, having suffered a stroke years earlier. And I spoke at her funeral. She did pass the mantle to me to keep Miss Burroughs' teaching alive. It is my honor to do that, and I seek your help.
What were the teachings that Nannie Helen Burroughs wanted the people to apply?
The previously stated views of Nannie Helen Burroughs suggest that she was omnipresent (if possible for a human), with a profound understanding of things and a clarity of purpose in what she wanted to impart to the people. Given that, her teaching goals were as shown below.
The overall thrust may be found in an Afro-American Newspaper article dated Ocrober 12, 1957, which reads: Louisville, Ky. – “Miss Nannie H. Burroughs, presiding at the Women’s Convention of the National Baprist Convention…recently opened a ‘Crusade to Improve American Life on All Fronts’.…People in America are frustrated, excited, furious, indifferent, ungodly and quite disturbed over what has been happening…and are doing much thinking and rethinking of their OPPORTUNITIES, RESPONSIBILITIES AND CHALLENGES…WE are not organized for ‘window dressing and annual parades and talk feasts.’ We are organized to build schools, support institutions, discover boys and girls…and educate them…”.
She instructed audiences on how to vote, protest Jim Crow pratices, deliver speeches, keep homes, manage businesses, attend conferences and employment. She was a stickler for doing things in a timely manner. For example, she was invited to speak at a 2:30 meeting, but was not called on until 4:20. Miss Burroughs told the audience: “I was here at 2:20. I announce to you that I shall start a convention of my own, whose delegates will pledge themselves to open and close on time. Sitting around for two hours with a speech in your pocketbook, waiting for an audience that eases in two hours late is enough to provoke anybody.”
To her student, Mary Alice Dorsett, Miss Burroughs offered the following advice: “A race rises on its own wings, or is held down by its own weight”. To rise, she referred to her writing, circa, 1928: “12 Things The Negro Must Do For Himself”. Please google to see the full discussion of each declaration. Given her admiration for Frederick Douglass, I have rephrased, especially number 11, of her writing to read: “12 Things We Should Teach Our Children” shown below. Because of her direct and harsh criticism of our Black leaders, she seemed to make little progress in altering their attitudes, views and actions. I have experienced similar results in advocating for her views. Therefore, I am reorienting my thrust about her views to the children. I seek your help (email address on website) in better rephrazing my attempt to rewrite the “12 Things…”. Burroughs would approve because Douglass said: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men”. Burroughs was what I call “an equal opportunity dispenser of her views” as she also wrote “12 Things White Folks Must Stop Doing”. This balance was displayed in actions about how she fought racism and discrimination, while equally seeking cooperation between the races.
Burroughs used her extraordinary speaking and writing skills to solve problems.
She wrote to a friend in 1934: “If you want something in this world in a crisis like this, you will have to wake up and go get it. Those who don’t go ahead will have to go behind.” In the Baltimore African-American Newspaper, Burroughs fashioned this differently, stating: "Figuratively speaking, there are five classes of people: Mud Sills, Door Mats, Stepping stones, Hound Dogs and Bull Dogs. The Mud Sills will be walked over. The Door Mats will be walked over. The Stepping Stones will be stepped upon. The Hound Dogs will be kicked around. And, the Bull Dogs will get what they go after."
Jest, she said to parents about the changing behavior of our children: “Everything in the modern household is controlled by switches, escept the children.” Also in jest, I believe my mother “hung out” with Nannie Helen Burroughs.
In the below image, see how she uses a very serious subject to make an important point.
What were her views about the Home, Church and School in preparing our children for a productive future?
Home: She believed there was a vast difference between a House (a building intended for habitation) and a Home. A Home consisted of elementary social virtues and values: love, godliness, understanding, cooperation, industry, courtesy, unselfishness, cleanliness, order and happiness---a House will eventually become a Home. She recognized and spoke out about the lack of fatherhood responsibilities of our black men: “…Stop making slaves and servants out of our women…They sing too much ‘I can’t give you anything but love, baby’. The women can’t build homes and rear families off love alone…”. I intentionally entitled this project “Rebuilding a Culture of Character” because Burroughs’ life represented the epitome of Character. She recognized that it had to be instilled in our children beginning in the Home and built upon in the Church and School. In speeches, she spoke of: “…There is as much Character in Ebony as there is in Marble…”; “…We must have a glorified womanhood that can look any man in the face…and tell of the mobility of Character within the black woman.”; and, “…Character not color…”. Then we hear the 1943 poem, I Am Somebody, by Dr. William Holmes Borders, Morehouse Professor and Atlanta Pastor of Wheat Street Baptist Church, with music (Google Youtube): “…I Am Somebody…I am a moulder of Character in Nannie Burroughs…”. We now can understand, given her relationship as a mentor to Dr. King, his 1963 speech: “…I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their Character…”.
Church: Nannie Helen Burroughs established the Women’s Auxiliary and Woman’s Day in 1902 and 1907, respectively, in the Baptist Church. However, her insistence on speaking out bluntly about the role of women caused a strained relationship with the church, which remains today. I cite examples on the Documents Page of the website. At the 1900 National
Baptist Convention, she gave a speech entitled: “How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping”. In 1920 at the National Baptist Convention, she declared: “We might as well be frank and face the truth. While we have hundreds of superior men in the pulpits…the majority of our religious leaders have preached too much Heaven and too little practical Christian Living. In many, the spirit of greed…is ever crying, ‘Give me, give me, give me,’. Does the absorbing task of supplying their personal needs bind leaders to the moral, social, and spiritual needs of our people? Men must welcome women into the affairs of government. Women must organize and educate. There will be protest against politics in the church, but it is better to have politics than ignorance.” Burroughs’ message about the church and country was communicated well beyond the black community. 1. At the age of twenty-six, in 1905, she was keynote speaker at the First Baptist World Alliance Conference in Hyde Park, London.In a speech entitled "Triumph of Truth" her message to the 18,000 assembled audience was: “It is useless to telegraph to heaven for shiploads of blessings and not be on the wharf to unload the vessels when they arrive.” 2. In a 1952 letter from President M. C. Allen of the Virginia Theological Seminary and College: “…I don’t know why, but when I see you, ‘I have a fit’…When I say your dynamic personality, creative mind and breath of soul to a weary traveler is an oasis in the desert, I speak the truth…”. 3. In her 1959 letter to Reverend Billy Graham: “…This is the most unusual invitation you have received. You have never preached to the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc…I think God wants you to bring a message at such a time as this…”.
School:The goal of Nannie Helen Burroughs’ National Training School for Women and Girls was: 1. Develop every student in positive character and traits – The right attitude towards work and pride and skills in their chosen profession. 2. Prepare them to enter competition with any and all workers who are engaged in the same profession. 3. Prepare them to clean up the environment in which they live. The school was called “The School of the 3 B’s, Bible, Bath and Broom” – symbolic of clean lives, clean bodies, and clean homes. Concerned about the plight of our children, Burroughs cautioned mothers about children and teen-age girls who are left at home to shift for themselves, because “…mothers are war workers… If they must be away all day, they should send their daughters to the best Christian boarding school, so they can get the kind of training that will prepare them for the great day of economic competition that is sure to come…” In characteristic harsh and blunt language, she said: “…while they were here and there, their children went to the dogs or the dogs came into their homes and got their daughters…”. Again, we see her orientation on, and concern for, “The Children”.
How did Nannie Helen Burroughs’ views compare with those of her contemporaries?
In her book, A Forgotten Sisterhood, Dr. Audrey McCluskey acknowledges the many black women who “…dedicated themselves to bringing change to our society between the 1880s and mid-1900s by building institutions of learning…”. Lucy Craft Laney, Mary McLeod Bethune, Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Nannie Helen Burroughs are referred to as “The Fab 4 of Education”. Laney was called The Matriarch, while the others are commonly referred to also as “The 3 B’s of Education”. McCluskey compares Burroughs to the others as follows: “…Through her writings and speeches, Burroughs created a legacy of activism focusing on the topics of the day…She used her platform…to engage a broad range of race and gender issues, both religious and secular…To compare her with her sister founders, Burroughs was as political as Mary McLeod Bethune but less diplomatic…She was less concerned with “social graces” than was Charlotte Hawkins Brown…Burroughs was as committed to her religious beliefs and core values as the very serious Lucy Laney but was more confrontational in espousing them. Burroughs stood out among the four women for delivering social critiques that were pointed and direct and left little room for diplomatic ambiguity.”
In the first image below, you see the premier “Women Builders” in the education of our children. While Burroughs’ views in many areas differed with the others, being known as “The Fab 4 of Education” indicates their collective importance in the history of our country. I am happy to report that The National Parks Service is recognizing their contributions in the renovation of the Carter G. Woodson Historic Home Site. Burroughs even insisted that books written by Carter G. Woodson be used to teach black history to her students. Woodson’s view of Burroughs’ work is addressed in the below second image, an excerpt from the Progressive National Baptist Conventions’ quarterly magazine, The Worker. The article seems to suggest that the subject of Charter versus Public Schools was as much an issue then as today.
What would Nannie Helen Burroughs say about conditions in our country today?
I believe her speech at the 1956 Baptist Women’s Convention would reflect her view of things today: “Today terrible conditions and serious race tensions and conflicts are tormenting the lives of people in both races in every sections of our country.” She would have us review her message and those of her sister institution builders: Lucy Craft Laney - “God has nothing to make men and women out of but boys and girls.” Mary McLeod Bethune - “…I want to see my people conduct themselves naturally in all relationships.” Charlotte Hawkins Brown – “Don’t let the failures of society keep you from reaching your full potential.” Burroughs recognized that when our children departed the three institutions where their lives had been shaped, they would be entering a less than perfect environment, adversely impacted by the harsh realities of POLITICS. She might argue that in such a political environment with new technology the positive impacts of the HOME, CHURCH and SCHOOL have been diminished.
Politics: Burroughs was a Republican as were most of our leaders and people at an earlier point in time. Some say that it is now the Democrat Party. Regardless of that discussion, I hasten to say that she was in a party, but not of a party. Today, the goal of cooperation Burroughs sought across racial lines is magnified in what appears to be almost complete allegiance to party ideology, with the overwhelming percentage of our people dedicated to one party. Here are some of her views and actions: 1. In 1923, Burroughs tried to get black and white women to join forces in fighting racial and sex discrimination and wrote an article in the West Virginia’s Women’s Voice Newspaper: “…There is a menace ahead. It is the politicians. The unscrupulous and unworthy are enrolled in both parties. They can be bought and sold…”. 2. Burroughs wrote in a 1933 letter: “… I have served for twelve years as Chairman of the Republican Party …The party has made some colossal blunders in handling the Negro group…You must be willing to listen to some Negroes who tell you the truth…” 3. In a 1934 article: “…There is just one thing the voters should do…make up a dishonor role of all of the men and women who served them with hot air, ancient platitudes and political swill…and put them on ice for life…In the meantime, you vote for the man whom you consciously believe, without coercion, coin or compromise.” 4. In her 1940 Letter to President Roosevelt: “…Dear Mr. President…It would seem that blind justice would rather feed the Negro on the 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 true of other laborers who send some of their money ‘Back home’ to feed kin, to bank, and to buy land…” 5. Pittsburg Courier, 17 Sep 1960: “… Nannie Helen Burroughs says both party planks are fakes…If the Presidents of the United States cannot enforce the constitution, we don’t want their planks. The constitution is the floor on which this nation is built, and the constitution is stronger than any plank that Kennedy and Nixon can write. We are sick and tired of this campaign ‘hooey’.”
Nannie Helen Burroughs has penned a letter to her black and white sisters expressing her concern about the state of affairs in our country, specifically as it impacts the future of our children.
The letter will appear on my website, www.nburroughsinfo.org, and I am posting it here. The letter reflects a message: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow in recognition of the following: 1. "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." George Orwell's novel, "1984". 2. " The motto of The NJ Monmouth County Business and Women's, Inc.: "We are beholden to the past. We are shaping the present. We are responsible for the future."
Miss Burroughs encourages responses from all parties regarding her views, especially educational and religious leaders.
My Dear Black and White Sisters: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
My message to you today is the same as I stated in an article in the West Virginia Women's Voice Newspaper in 1923. "... White women and Negro women need to come together....There are real dangers ahead. Politics affords an opportunity for exploitation and bargaining. The unscrupulous and unworthy are enrolled in all parties and can be bought and sold...". That's why I am calling upon you, my sisters, to remember and stand up for the values for which we fought and won in our suffrage struggle. Sadly, I see too many of our women now disregarding, and maybe not even being aware of, the essence of the struggle. The rhetoric about our history and impact of slavery is ripping our country apart, even pitting our children against each other based on race. It's the politicians, and we must separate ourselves and fix it for the sake of our children and the future of our country.
The issues of slavery and racism have been dealt with for many, many years in our country. I am reminded of my speech at a 1934 NAACP Rally in Washington, DC, where 70 people had ropes around their necks, representing the daily lynchings across the country. I remember thundering to the assembled crowd: "There are enough Negroes in Washington to make Pennsylvania Avenue tremble tonight." So, I can tell you that we've been fighting this battle for a long time. Further, I can tell you that I have the scars to show that while we fight, we must equally seek cooperation across racial and political lines. That is why by 1960 I had learned, and I declare to you again, that our weapons of warfare must not be frustration and hate, but education, improvement of home and family life, and Christian values to achieve our goals. This is how we must fight for our rights, and then go forward to meet the challenges of opportunities gained.
You've heard me speak about my grandmother, who would say: "...Yes honey, I was in slavery. But, I wasn't no slave. I was just in it. That's all. They may have slaved my body. But, they didn't slave my mind...". I am pleading with you, especially my Black sisters, to listen to the words of my grandmother. She challenged us to resist victimization and to embrace pride and determination to make our country better. In my 1952 book, Think On These Things, I wrote a chapter entitled Put the Leaven in the Lump. There I describe our Democracy like a lump of leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of a meal, until the whole was leavened. Even scientists do not understand this phenomenon about yeast, to which I compare Democracy. It will leaven men, give equal opportunity and bring equal results. But, we must use the weapons to which I speak above. I also speak to three great happenings in the world and our country. They are the meanings of the coming of Christ into the world; the meaning of 1861; and, the significance of 1776.
As I close this letter, let me be clear about the significance of the above stated three happenings. They do not represent socialism, nor communism, nor any other imported scheme that we need in America. They represent the cry of the soul of every man for justice. That is the travail of Democracy. Little by little the yeast of Democracy has permeated this society and will continue until the whole lump is leavened. I am today challenging our women to reflect on how we achieved our victory, separate ourselves from the divisive rhetoric of the day, and save this country for the sake of our children's future.
God Bless America,
Nannie Helen Burroughs
In her vernacular at the 1920 National Baptist Convention of “We might as well be frank and face the truth” our black community has turned its back on the teachings of Nannie Helen Burroughs. Our leaders in the church and politics even reject having an open and honest discussion about her views and vision for our race and country. However, consider the following commentaries.
President Obama: “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 learn to love…”.This thought process directly represents Nannie Helen Burroughs’ views: In her 1950/52 books What Do You Think?/Think On These Things, she dedicated a chapter to The Meaning of Cooperation: “…it is made largely of unselfish attitudes, clear vision and common sense – combined to produce definite results in a cause in which two…groups or organizations…are mutually interested or affected…” At the 1956 Women’s Convention, she said: We have quite enough of the occasional---the planned meetings together on special or high occasion, but we have far from enough united interests to bring us together on common ground to face our common problems and discuss what we can do ---together to enlighten all of the people of this nation and enlist them in all of the services that make for the common good…”.
In his 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech, Booker T. Washington stated that the races could work together as one hand while socially remaining separate as the fingers. In 1895, Nannie was a senior in high school. A colored man giving such a powerful speech seems to have greatly impacted her life.
Fort Monmouth, NJ., 21 July 1972 - Letter of Appreciation: To LTC James E. Wyatt: “….gratitude…for your initiative in organizing the first racial seminar in form of 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…”.
As a race, we have different views about Tyler Perry’s work. However, his comments upon receiving an award at the 2017 CMA Awards Ceremony are remarkably similar to the views of Nannie Helen Burroughs: “Now it has never been more important that we all come together, listen to each other, and realize that we are more alike than we are not alike.”
Consider the following rather lengthy list of letters between Nannie Helen Burroughs and the white Women’s Missionary Union of the Southern Baptist Convention. The discussion is intended to show cooperative actions across racial lines back in the 1930s, as Burroughs sought cooperation between the races. She recognized, and made known, that white women had to “step up their game” if progress were to be made.
1. November 23, 1931: Dear Miss Burroughs …I have been seeking some way in which we may enlist our women in the small towns and rural communities in some kind of cooperative work with your leadership of your churches…I am happy over the hope you express for help for the school. For I do believe that the Southern Baptist women are looking for a chance to cooperate with you…Sincerely, Una R. Lawrence.
2. October 22, 1934: Dear Miss Burroughs…Wish you were here with us…We are going to get $10,000 for you out of the jubilee, if it can be gotten…With love, Una R. Lawrence
3. January 23, 1935: Dear Miss Burroughs…I have had a feeling all along that we are doing something, the full extent and significance of which we cannot understand. It gives me a big thrill…Lovingly yours, Una R. Lawrence
4. February 14, 1935: Dear Miss Burroughs…Our women are ready to do something, but they are not going to take the initiative. You will have to do that. They know too little about what you need and are waiting for direction of their awakening interests…Cordially, Una R. Lawrence
5. March 29. 1935: Dear Miss Burroughs…I am not surprised that you finally had to write the sister down in South Carolina. Considering the fact that she will not understand at all what you are talking about, you did a pretty good job! I hope there will be no “come back” on your letter, and I really do not expect any, for you wrote a pretty good letter, considering “limitations” on your own self which strong feelings always place on us…We are dealing with some tremendously big issues even in these little, apparently insignificant, contacts with women in small towns in the south. Doesn’t it give you a thrill, it certainly brings a thrill to my heart. Every day I am thankful I have a person like you with whom to work. Lovingly yours, Una R. Lawrence
As an interesting observation, the Southern Law Poverty Center has the identical objectives as Nannie Helen Burroughs’ life and work, i.e., Fighting Hate, Teaching Tolerance and Seeking Justice. Different approaches. Common ground?
As the above addresses attempts at cooperation across racial lines, I believe a December 17, 2017 article, Bonfire of the Academies, offers great potential for, if not a solution, a wonderful opportunity for discussion leading to cooperation across political lines. “…What of Martin Luther King’s dream?...the content of our character…” The Left and Right historically disagree on the extent of current inequities in the current system and 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…” Finding compromise across political lines and cooperation across racial lines, as suggested by Nannie Helen Burroughs, provides grounds for a reasonable discussion to move our country forward.
Many speeches and articles written by Nannie Helen Burroughs are among the 110,000 pieces of information archived in the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, as stated in the prologue, there is no audio or video of Nannie Helen Burroughs. In spite of being a member of the Advisory Board of the National Broadcasting Company, the company was unable to find a copy of her in the 1943 National Radio Address to “Americans in arms…” in its archives. Below, I make an attempt to capture the essence of her life’s work and message.
Mary Alice Dorsett, Burroughs’ student 1947-51, in her 1990 book Wings: Miss Burroughs said: “You must write a book and entitle it wings, because a race rises on its own wings or is held down by its own weight.” Burroughs speaks to this as she consistently addresses OPPORTUNITIES, RESPONSIBILITIES and CHALLENGES, and the role of our leaders in the church, education and politics in guiding the masses.
In her Book, Think On These Things in a chapter entitled, Put the Lump in the Leaven: “Democracy is like a lump in the 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 readjustments. Of course, that means danger. There are always those who fear danger. 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…”
I am encouraged by the fact that scholars such as Dr. Danielle Phillips-Cunningham are researching Nannie Helen Burroughs’ approach to advancing democracy through labor activism. As Burroughs declared in her newspaper article about the exclusion of domestic workers from the 1935 Social Security Act: “Let us not forget that definite recognition of the value of all types of service lies at the heart of democracy. It constitutes its inner soul, its deepest life (Burroughs, “Domestic Workers Excluded,” Atlanta Daily World, June 21, 1937). This article makes my connection with Nannie Helen Burroughs more personal than I could ever have imagined, because June 21, 1937 was my fourth birthday.
Recognizing no progress in race relations, she made the following declaration in 1960, calling for action: “The day of the protest has come out of centuries of frustrations, but the weapons of warfare must not be frustration and hate. Rather, African Americans must use education, improvement of home and family and Christian Living to achieve their goals”.
Nannie Helen Burroughs’ views and vision for our race and country seem to have come from her grandmother, Maria Poindexter. “…They tell this interesting story about her attitude about slavery. She would say: ‘Yes, honey, I was in slavery, but I wasn’t no slave. I was just in it, that’s all. They never made me hold my head down and there was a whole parcel of Negroes just like me’. That proud Virginian would say ‘hold your spirit up inside child, hold your spirit up, and that helps you hold your head up. Don’t let your spirit down.’ Honey, they may have slaved my body, but they didn’t slave my mind.”
In conclusion, I don’t suggest that we all agree with the views of Nannie Helen Burroughs. In spite of her strong views, even she seemed to suggest that we accomplish things through compromise and cooperation, which can only come through sharing our different views through discussion. However, it seems to me that we must come to some basic agreement on whether we view racial problems today from the standpoint of Victimization (The 1619 Project - The NY Times) or Opportunities, Responsibilities and Challenges (The 1776 Project - The Woodson Center). Let’s have our black leaders engage in this discussion and bring the findings to the masses.
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