Nannie Helen Burroughs, a leader in advocating for African American women’s education and a civil rights activist, combined her education and leadership roles in the National Baptist Convention with her organizing skills to create what would become the National Training School for Women and Girls. The school, established in 1909, was the first of its kind to offer multiple education programs in different fields, and was the first school owned and operated by an African American woman outside of the Deep South. The Historic District includes three buildings and the school’s original entrance, all contributing to the growth and mission of the school: the Trades Hall, a National Historic Landmark; a dormitory; the National Memorial Chapel; and the Lincoln Memorial Arch.
Born in 1878 in Orange, Virginia, Nannie Helen Burroughs moved to DC as a child with her family. Undeterred from financial and social limitations surrounding African American women’s education, Nannie Helen Burroughs was determined to open a school for women and girls to pursue academic, religious, and practical educations. After struggling herself to find educational and occupational opportunities as a young woman, Burroughs helped to found the Women’s Industrial Service Club. The program offered night classes for women pursuing office and domestic work.
Because of her close relationship and work with the Women’s Convention Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention, Burroughs looked to the organization to help fund and support the school’s construction. Having fostered relationships with fellow African American activists, such as the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Lucy Diggs Slowe, and Mary Church Terrell, Burroughs continued to advocate for training and education within the nation’s capital. While the Convention aided her somewhat, most of the school’s funding came from African American families and churches, especially African American women who lacked access to education in their youth. After opening in 1909, the school had periods of financial uncertainty, with Burroughs investing much of her own money into the school, and she took little pay from her position as president.
One of few original structures remaining on the campus, the Lincoln Memorial Arch was built in 1914 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President Lincoln’s untimely death. The arch also served as the school’s main entrance and featured a portrait silhouette bas-relief of the former president. A few changes were made to the structure throughout the years, with the school’s name being added to the archway. Later, the name was updated to match the school’s new name, National Training and Professional School, in order to distinguish it from another institution that had previously shared the same name. In 1956, the school added the metal gate seen in the archway today, and the name was repainted once again when the Progressive National Baptist Convention took ownership of the building.
The Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC) grew out of the National Baptist Convention in 1961 as the rise of the civil rights movement split activists’ ideals for the future of the convention. The PNBC gave more support to elevating African American women to positions of leadership both within the organization and within the church. Burroughs’s goals for the school aligned more so with the PNBC, and the school transferred its affiliation to the PNBC’s Women’s Department shortly after. Activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also aligned themselves with the PNBC. Because of their enduring support for Burroughs and the school’s mission, the organization purchased the building for their headquarters in 1978.
Of the existing buildings, the Trades Hall serves as the largest on the campus from the school’s operating years. Built from 1927 to 1928 with Renaissance Revival elements in a modernist style, the building served as a schoolhouse and office building, and housed trade workshops. The building’s original plan included a third-story addition, but only two were ever constructed. Currently, the Trades Hall operates as the headquarters and offices for the PNBC.
The dormitory, constructed from 1954 to 1956, increased the number of women who could live on-campus while pursuing their education; the building hosted 52 rooms that could accommodate 70 occupants. To match the campus aesthetic, the dormitory borrowed design elements seen in the Trades Hall constructed two decades prior. In 1961, the school opened a chapel. The building was dedicated shortly after Burroughs had passed away, and hosted her public memorial service as its first event. The building has a Stripped Classicism design, and was funded by donors much like the other buildings on campus.
Formal education efforts for African American, especially women, had existed since the Civil War, and the National Training School for Women and Girls continued this work. Burroughs’s mission to educate African American children continued even after her death. In 1964, the school was restructured into a private, co-ed elementary school and renamed after Burroughs as a testament to her legacy. In 1971, a new school building was constructed and remains within the historic district’s boundaries.
While the Nannie Helen Burroughs Elementary School closed in 2013, a new school, the Monroe School, opened its doors to students in 2015 and continues to operate today.
DC Inventory: October 27, 2022