A snapshot biography of educator Nannie Helen Burroughs

Her father was a preacher, her mother taught Sunday school. Both had been enslaved. When Nannie Helen Burroughs was born in 1879, the family lived in Orange, Virginia. 

Not long after Nannie was born, her father died. Her younger sister died a few years after. Nannie’s mother, now raising her daughter as a single parent, moved with Nannie to Washington D.C. in search of better opportunities. 

There Nannie went to school and after completing her schooling looked for work teaching. Unable to find a job, she spent over a decade working as an editorial secretary and bookkeeper. But tenacious in personality, she refused to let her dream die. She raised money and opened a school, the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington D.C. in 1909, with the goal of helping Black women achieve financial independence and help “uplift the race”.

Her reasoning for opening a trade school was “because specialized training meets the definite requirements in the world of today. It gives the graduate special advantage over those who have only a general education. It is less difficult for her to secure employment and make advancement in her field. It develops job security.” And in Washington D.C. at the time, the “largest occupational category for black female workers was domestic service.”

The initial class of 31 was taught by Nannie. But with time the school grew, with women applying from all over the U.S. And the staff Nannie hired was all female and were all college graduates.

Nannie had a motto for life, “Do ordinary things in an extraordinary way.” This was at the heart of all she did and the training students at the school received. 


Harley, Sharon. “Nannie Helen Burroughs: ‘The Black Goddess of Liberty’.” The Journal of Negro History 81, no. 1/4 (1996): 62-71. Accessed October 12, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2717608.

Taylor, Traki L. “‘Womanhood Glorified’: Nannie Helen Burroughs and the National Training School for Women and Girls, Inc., 1909-1961.” The Journal of African American History, vol. 87, 2002, pp. 390–402. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1562472. Accessed 20 Oct. 2020


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