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Louisville's Black Gilded Age: Nannie Helen Burroughs

In honor of Black History Month, the Conrad-Caldwell House Museum will highlight the life and stories of prominent African Americans born in or lived during Louisville’s Gilded Age. We hope to tell their story to bring awareness to individuals who are part of the fabric of Louisville’s rich history.

Today, we highlight Nannie Helen Burroughs, an African American educator, religious leader, and civil rights activist who lived in Louisville during the early 1900s.



Burroughs was born to formerly enslaved parents in Orange County, Virginia. After her father’s death, she and her mother relocated to Washington, D.C. While in D.C., Burroughs attended M Street School, one of the first high schools in the nation for black students, where she studied business and domestic science.

Although she graduated with honors, Burroughs found securing a domestic-science teaching position difficult. The District of Columbia Public School system, which did hire black teachers, did not hire Burroughs. According to the Muncie-Delaware Indiana League of Women Voters’ series Forgotten Foremothers, the reason for not hiring Burroughs was because she was “too dark.” Burroughs refused to accept society's restrictions and did not want the same thing to happen to other women of color. So, in 1909 Burroughs founded The National Trade and Professional School, for Women and Girls, Inc., in Washington D.C. This school catered to African-American women who were denied opportunities based on their skin color, like Burroughs. The vocational school’s training focused on racial pride, integrity and a strong work ethic. Burroughs believed these qualities would help African American women succeed in the public sphere.

Before founding her school, Burroughs lived in Louisville between 1900 to 1909. While in Louisville, she served as secretary and bookkeeper of the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention and founded the National Baptist Women’s Convention. While at the convention, Burroughs gained national attention for her address, “How the Sisters Are Hindered From Helping,” which argued for women to have a more significant say in the church’s decision-making. While many praised her speech, others rejected her words and criticized Burroughs. According to the Muncie-Delaware Indiana League of Women Voters’ series Forgotten Foremothers, after Burroughs address, a man in the audience was quoted, “Why don’t she sit down? She’s always talking. She’s just an upstart.” To which Burroughs responded, “I might be an upstart, but I am just starting up.”


Today, we remember Nannie Helen Burroughs for her speech at the National Baptist Convention, her fight for equal rights, and her work to propel opportunities for women beyond the realms of domestic housework. Her list “Twelve Things Whites Must Stop Doing” is also another noted work of Burroughs.


Resources:

Nannie Helen Burroughs: A Documentary Portrait of an Early Civil Rights Pioneer, 1900–1959 (African American Intellectual Heritage) – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07HCPQT3W/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Notable Kentucky African Americans Database – https://nkaa.uky.edu/nkaa/items/show/6

Forgotten Foremothers- Nannie Helen Burroughs – https://www.lwvin.org/content.aspx?page_id=5&club_id=42001&item_id=57581&

“Twelve Things Whites Must Stop Doing” – http://www.nburroughsinfo.org/files/47096865.pdf

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