On Labor Day, we honor a pioneering black educator and organizer



This Labor Day comes in a year of an historic upsurge in unionization — including, just this month, a teachers’ strike in Columbus, Ohio. My research has looked at some of the long history of teachers investing in the community and building institutions that can strengthen our democracy.

In an upcoming work story, I explore the life of Nannie Helen Burroughs, founder of the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, DC, in 1909. Burroughs was one of several pioneering black educators and labor leaders. When Burroughs founded the NTS in 1909, black women and girls were among the most exploited working women in the country. The Jim Crow South referred black youth to schools that were often underfunded. Black women and girls were excluded from other jobs as sharecroppers and domestic workers, the lowest-paying jobs in the US economy. No laws protected them from rampant racial and gender-based violence.

Teaching was the only profession available to educated women like Burroughs. Like her breakthrough friends Mary McLeod Bethune and Lucy Craft Laney, teaching for Burroughs was never just about lesson plans. Burroughs used her position as corresponding secretary of Woman’s Convention (WC), the women’s auxiliary group of the National Baptist Convention (NBC), to democratize education by building her own school.

While teaching and presiding over the NTS, Burroughs worked to hold the country accountable for 14th Amendment promises of citizenship. Through her curriculum and community organization, she realized her philosophy that every young person deserves a quality education that opens access to any profession, living wages, safe and comfortable housing, clean water and nutritious food, and personal joy. She often sacrificed her livelihood, personal comfort, and sometimes physical health to meet the needs of her students and communities.

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Tackling inequalities through curriculum development

Influenced by her high school teachers Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell, Burroughs made the politically and financially risky decision to create a blended curriculum of trade and academic programs for her students. As she explained, the mission of the NTS was to prepare “the army of black breadwinners” to “think and work.”

She could not find investors among white philanthropists who believed black girls were intellectually incapable of learning academic subjects, or Baptist leaders who argued that a girls’ trade program would disrupt the “natural” order in which men were breadwinners were. Instead, she found smaller donors from the Woman’s Convention, black educators, white educators, and other supporters. For 30 years, Burroughs took no salary to provide those funds to build and repair dormitories, classrooms, a dining hall, and provide student scholarships and teachers’ salaries.

Juneteenth started in Texas. So does this black city. The whites destroyed it.

Burroughs built the NTS as a laboratory in which she and the faculty experimented with how to challenge the hierarchies of professions while meeting the material needs, aspirations, and intellectual curiosity of her students. Knowing that black women found jobs most easily in households, they created a rigorous home economics curriculum to give students the certification that would enable them to demand living wages and safe working conditions.

They designed professional courses in printing, shorthand, millinery, and power machine operation, and trained students to assert their right to jobs in fields dominated by men and white women. Students also took courses in African American history, English, ancient and general history, sociology, Latin, and Spanish.

On Labor Day, we remember black women who helped fight for labor rights

Community organization through the NTS

Burroughs knew that her curriculum alone would not change society for young people. A creative writer, she wrote plays to stimulate community conversation and collective action against systemic inequalities. In 1929, NTS students performed their play When Truth Gets a Hearing—about racial and labor injustices in the United States, Haiti, Liberia, and Ethiopia—in churches and theaters along the East Coast and in California.

After seeing the performance at the Dunbar Theater in Philadelphia, WEB Du Bois wrote to her: “I was amazed and delighted to see how it captivated and interested the audience. … We have much to learn from you.” Alice Dunbar Nelson, author of the Harlem Renaissance and a close friend of Burroughs, wrote that “the audience expressed its approval so forcefully and wholeheartedly that some of the lines were lost”.

During the Depression, Burroughs turned her attention to organizing for students and the local DC community. In 1934, she founded the Cooperative Industries (originally called the Northeast Self-Help Cooperative) on the NTS campus. Through its medical clinic, broom factory, grocery store, furniture (barrel chair) manufacture, and 106-acre farm, the cooperative provided jobs, affordable resources, and business shares for NTS students and over 6,000 black people.

Burroughs developed a stress-related illness from working hard to keep her school and co-operative open during this national financial crisis. Even then, she wrote countless letters from her sickbed, asking friends and organizations for donations for building repairs, student grants and teachers’ salaries. With the help of supporters, the number of NTS enrollments increased in the late 1930s. Burroughs and NTS faculty continued to serve students and communities until her death in 1961. In 1964, the NTS was renamed Nannie Helen Burroughs School in her honor and eventually converted into a private primary school, which closed in 2006.

Appreciation of teachers and the work they do

If Burroughs were still with us, she would join teachers on pickets across the country. Their concerns, challenges, sacrifices, and community influences echo in the stories of teachers more than 100 years later. Her example reminds us that the work of teachers is essential to the health and future of the country as it supports the everyday needs and aspirations of young people and communities.

Professors: Check out TMC’s newly indexed and reorganized instructional topic guides.

Danielle Phillips Cunningham (@Phillips3D) is Program Director and Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Texas Woman’s University and author of forthcoming “‘A Tower of Strength in the Workplace’: Nannie Helen Burroughs and Her National Training School for Women and Girls” (Georgetown University Press)


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