Nannie Helen Burroughs Project

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

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Project Goal: To Answer the Question:
So, What do We do Now?

African American History Education based in Annapolis, Maryland


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Preface: The above represents the contributions of Nannie Helen Burroughs to the education of our children,  along with Lucy Craft Laney, Charlotte Hawkins Brown and Mary McLeod Bethune.  It is noted, however, that the school closed in 2013, and the facility is being rented out to The Monroe School.  The future of the institution is the responsibility of the Progressive National Baptist Convention(PNBC),  whose headquarters is located on the same site. The contributions of this remarkable black woman to our race and country were far beyond education. She was an outspoken truth-teller who spoke with extreme clarity and directness about our problems in the home, church and politics. So, as we discuss her views and vision from the past, let's assess their relevancy to our lives today.  I am not an historian, just one trying to be a conduit to facilitate assess of the scholarly work of our women historians to, as Miss Burroughs would say, "the masses"  During a 2013 presentation, the president of one of our women's organzation described the situation as follows: "Colonel, we've heard about her, but we don't know about her"  As her views are presented in the following, the question is: Are her views and vision for our country relevant to our lives today?

The below letters represent an attempt to connect Miss Burroughs, the person, to our lives today.  I only discovered Nannie Helen Burroughs in 2008.  Subsequently, I have often questioned why I selected her as my life's work. One of my fraternity brothers, Dr. Lawrence Hawkins, saw things differently: "Brother Wyatt, you did not select her.  She selected you"

Nannie Helen Burroughs letter to Mary Alice Dorsett. Dr. Reverend Jeremiah Wright letter to Mary Alice Dorsett Mary Alice Dorsett letter tasking Colonel Wyatt

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.  Long after graduation, Miss Burroughs was a mentor and friend to Mary Alice, as shown in the above correspondence.  Mary Alice Dorsett transitioned in November 2017.  

What was her Message?

Nannie Helen Burroughs’ message was about the roles and responsibilities of the Home, Church, and School in preparing our children

for the future.  This is depicted and discussed in her 1956 article, entitled, A National Crusade to Improve American Life on all Fronts. 

  • Home:  She believed there was a vast diffefrent 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.
  • Church:  In a speech at the 1920 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" 
  • School:  She stated the goal of her  school as follows: 1. Develop every student in positive character traits - The right attitude towards work and pride and skills in their chosen profession.  2.  Prepare them to enter into competition with any and all workers who are engaged in the same profession, without fear or apology.  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.
A National Crusade

Burroughs was a strong advocate of her idol, Frederick Douglass and his quote: "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men" She recognized and emphasized the need for personal responsibility, self-reliance, and accountability and believed that good behavior flowed from being of good character.  Dr. William Holmes Borders, Pastor of Atlanta's Wheat Street Baptist Church and Morehouse Professor, spoke of Burroughs in his 1943 poem: "I Am Somebody---I am a moulder of character in Nannie Burroughs"  Dr. Borders speaking to his poem with accompanying music can be viewed at

About Nannie Helen Burroughs

  • The readings on the Documents Page will give a complete picture of the life and works of Nannie Helen Burroughs. Two entrees, Congressional Records and Who Was Nannie Helen Burroughs,  will provide you with sufficient information to appreciate the objective of this initiative.  Nannie Helen Burroughs' life's work 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.  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.  As we discuss racism today, it might be helpful to distinguish between structural racism and individual attitudes and behavior.
  • Dr. Earl L. Harrison, Pastor of Washington's Shiloh Baptist Church from 1930 to 1971, wrote a book about Nannie Helen Burroughs entitled, The Dream and the Dreamer.  He explained Burroughs ability to deliver her message and the consequences as follows:   "Nannie was gifted with extraordinary oratorical ability.  She was far above average in quick and 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 prejudice"
  • In 1934 during a speech in Tuskegee, Alabama, 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 a need for leaders with long-range vision who can see fifty or a hundred years hence and plan to that end.  She 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" 
  • 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 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" 
  • Burroughs fought racism, but sought cooperation between the races.  The evidence suggests that she was successful, as she and Una Roberts Lawerence, President of the Women's Missionary Union of the Southern Baptist Convention, worked closely together throughout the 1930's.  Lawrence was a strong source of income for her National Training School for Women and Girls when the National Baptist Convention withdrew funding for the school.  Their relationship in the 1930's  could offer guidance to us today. Here's an excerpt from a letter dated January 23, 1936: "Dear Miss Burroughs...It was good to see you in Atlanta.  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"      

What Do We Do Now About Nannie Helen Burroughs?

  • The answer is found in Nannie Helen Burroughs' speech at the 1920 National Baptist Convention, i.e., "We might as well be frank and face the truth" The masses need to question our black leaders about why they, without exception, reject discussing her views  regarding the problems we face today in our country.  Are her views relevant? If  we do not agree that they are, then we should simply reject them.  If found to be relevant, we should take action to implement them. However, we simply do nothing. The leaders in our Black Baptist Conventions did not even give the courtesy of a response to my request for a letter of tribute for a "Wreath Laying-Ceremony" I held recently for the fifty-seventh anniversity of her demise.  Nannie Helen Burroughs is lost to history and the church,  as even the black women, for whom she fought so resolutely, remain silent.
  • Nannie Helen Burroughs in 1956 at the Baptist Women's Convention in Denver, Colorada: "Today terrible conditions and serious race tensions and conflicts are tormenting the lives of people in both races in every section of the country. We have quite enough of the occasional---the planned meeting together on special or high occasions, but we have far from enough united interests to bring us together on common grounds to face our common problems and discuss what we can do ---to enlighten all of the people of this nation and enlist them in all of the services that make for the common ground"  Nannie Helen Burroughs at a Women's Convention in 1960 declared: "The day of the protest has come out of centuries of frustrations, but 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" Can we not at least have a discussion about her views?
  • As a race, we have different views about the work of Tyler Perry.  However, his comments at the 2017 CMA Awards Ceremony are remarkably similar to those 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" 
  • Believing that Christian Living fostered Cooperation, Nannie Helen Burroughs dedicated an entire chapter to it in her 1950/1952 books, What Do You Think?/Think On These Things:  "...Cooperation is made largely of unselfish attitudes, clear vision and common sense---combined to produce definite results in a cause which two individuals, or groups or organizations are mutually interested or affected..."
Know Our History. Know Our Culture. Know Ourselves. Be Proud! Nannie Helen Burroughs - Fought Racism, Sought Cooperation - America's Future? Obama

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 be taught to love..."  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.
  • Booker T. Washington in his 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech stated that the races could work together as one hand while socially remaining as separate as the fingers.  In 1895, Nannie Helen Burroughs was in her senior year of high school, and it seems that hearing a Colored man given this powerful speech greatly impacted her life.
  • 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.  Again, why is she lost to history and the black church?

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 today's problems differently. However described, I think the life and works of Nannie Helen Burroughs address the issues.  Maybe we can use them as standards to govern our lives today. What do you think?

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 transforms 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 was a builder.

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