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Nannie Helen Burroughs: A Woman Far Ahead of her Time

Who knew that one of the very first nationally acclaimed advocates for the advancement of women’s rights and the improvement for all people of color was an African American woman born in Orange County, Virginia?

Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879–1961). Miss Nannie H. Burroughs, President, Nat’l. League of Rep. Colored Women, ca. 1920s. Reproduction from lantern slide. Nannie Helen Burroughs Papers, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (130.07.00)

Nannie Helen Burroughs, born in 1878 was the daughter of John and Virginia “Jennie” Burroughs of Orange County, Virginia. Jennie was a Poindexter, born into slavery about 1853 to Elijah Poindexter (1827) and Maria Taliaferro (1827). The 1870 Census reports the Poindexter’s living in the Madison District with Jennie and siblings Taliaferro (12) and Rachel (4) and one household away from white farmers, Robert and Nicholas Coleman.

Nannie Helen’s biography indicates that when she was about five years of age the family moved to Washington, DC so that she might benefit from the more advanced education system offered by the city.

Nannie Burroughs, ca. 1900 Courtesy Library of Congress (2005683660)

At the age of 18, she helped organize the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) and in 1898 she relocated to Louisville, KY to work as a bookkeeper and editorial secretary with the National Baptist Convention. While in Kentucky, she received an honorary AM degree from Eckstein-Norton University.

In 1909, Burroughs returned to Washington DC and founded the National Training School for Women and Girls operating it until her death in 1961. Burroughs was well known for her creed of racial self-help and the Burrough’s “Three B’s” program: the Bible, the bath and the broom (a clean life, a clean body and a clean house). The value of being proud of one’s gender and racial heritage was emphasized through required courses in African American history.

African-American women posed, standing, full length, with Nannie Burroughs holding banner reading, "Banner State Woman's National Baptist Convention." Courtesy Library of Congress,

Civically involved at many levels, she devoted time to the National League of Republican Colored Women and the National Association of Wage Earners resulting in an appointment in 1928 by President Herbert Hoover as the committee chairwoman for Negro Housing, in conjunction with his 1931 White House Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership.

Accolades and further reading:

  • The school has been renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School in her honor and serves currently as a coeducational elementary school.

  • An avenue in DC carries her name.

  • The Library of Congress houses the Burroughs Collection containing more than one hundred thousand documents.

  • Nannie Burroughs and the School of the Three B’s, authored by William Pickens, 1921

  • Nannie H. Burroughs’ Rhetorical Leadership during the Inter-War Period, authored by Ann Michele Mason, 2008

  • The Nannie Helen Burroughs Project: Rebuilding a Culture of Character

  • This is a free traveling display: Contact: or 443-949-9449

  • Until next week, be well.

Zann Nelson is an award -winning freelance writer specializing in historical investigations. Initiator and Original Author of the Virginia Lynching Resolution (S297)

Member of the Virginia MLK Commission's Subcommittee on Lynching

Vice President, Orange County African American Historical Society

Acting President, African American Heritage Alliance: Culpeper Chapter

Author, Allie's Law: An Exoneration Project

Researcher, Writer, Advocate, Public Speaker

President, History Quest

Special Projects: The African American Descendants' Quest

Right the Record

Archived Columns: "Buried Truth" and "Zann's Place" She can be reached at or


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