Uncompromising feminist Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879-1961) devoted her life to improving the career prospects for women and girls. She often went up against men who could not imagine women in leadership positions and, throughout her career, campaigned for the rights and dignity of women, especially working women.
A stirring orator, she criticized white racists and spoke out against President Woodrow Wilson for not doing enough to stop lynching. She pushed white suffragists to recognize African American women as a political force.
Inspired by Booker T. Washington and his belief that racial self-help and personal self-reliance were the means to success, Burroughs worked with the Baptist Woman’s Convention to found the National Training School for Women and Girls in 1909. The Convention deliberately did not seek assistance from white donors for the school's establishment, and the school never relied on white philanthropy for its survival.
The school taught manual skills such as sewing, cooking, and printing, but also offered religious instruction and academic training equivalent to the upper grades of high school and community college. Its academic subjects included “Negro history” which used books from Burroughs’s close colleague, the historian Carter G. Woodson. Woodson, who stopped accepting white financial support for his own work in the early 1930s, became one of the school’s biggest advocates. The National Training School was the first American institution to offer such a variety of educational opportunities within a single building.
In 1914 Burroughs encouraged the NAACP and others to investigate the firing of a young employee of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Rosebud Murraye. Ms. Murraye had refused to sit at a separate dining table in the agency’s lunchroom after a new policy established by the Woodrow Wilson administration required the segregation of work and dining places in the federal government.
In 1920, Burroughs organized a union for domestic workers, the National Association of Wage Earners (NAWE). Besides pushing for better wages and working conditions, NAWE served as an employment agency for domestic workers and operated its own factory, hiring women to sew work dresses, caps and aprons, which were sold through the mail. Burroughs was president and Mary McLeod Bethune vice-president of the union, which also operated a Domestic Service Practice House for training women in one of the few avenues of employment available to them. In addition to helping command higher wages, professionalizing domestic service increased respect for women who worked in positions where they were often subject to degrading treatment and often to sexual assault.
Now occupied by the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the private Monroe School, the former National Training School for Women and Girls was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.