Nannie Helen Burroughs: 'The Black Goddess of liberty.'(Vindicating the Race: Contributions to African-American Intellectual History)

By Harley, Sharon | The Journal of Negro History, Annual 1996 | Go to article overview

Nannie Helen Burroughs: 'The Black Goddess of liberty.'(Vindicating the Race: Contributions to African-American Intellectual History)


Harley, Sharon, The Journal of Negro History


As an educator, institution and organization-builder, and major figure in the black church and secular feminist movements, Nannie Helen Burroughs was one of the best known and well-respected African-Americans of the early twentieth century. Yet, except for a few biographical entries and an essay or two, she is absent from most contemporary studies of African-American leaders and intellectuals. Quite possibly had she discussed her life and writings in an autobiographical work or had she been male, she would be more widely known to historians and, thus, to more black folk today. Her popularity during her lifetime and the availability of her manuscript collection at the Library of Congress should have afforded her a more central role in subsequent histories of African-American life in the twentieth century. How was it possible for a woman, who was a major figure on the black political, economic, and social landscape for the first six decades of this century, and whose views foretold some of the most compelling intellectual and ideological debates of the last four decades, not to have been given fuller consideration by scholars? Why is it that she is not more widely known by most Americans, let alone, African-Americans? To tell the story of Nannie Helen Burroughs' life as an intellectual is also to reveal how members of black communities and external forces and groups designate who were the black intellectuals and race leaders, and how class, gender, and even skin color influence leadership designations at specific historical moments.

In her life and writings Burroughs both embodied and commented upon many of the class, race, and gender tensions confronting members of the black community in the first half of the twentieth century. Some of these tensions continue to haunt us today in no small order because we either did not heed or were largely unaware of Burroughs' voice, which was too often drowned out (and, more recently, silenced) by our preoccupation with the lives and thoughts of a few notable twentieth century middle-class male figures, such as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, (more recently) Marcus Garvey, and occasionally such female notables as Ida Wells-Barnett and Mary Church Terrell. To be marginalized in this way is quite ironic, considering that her ideas and public life were an eclectic mix of Washington (she was sometimes referred to as "Mrs. Booker T. Washington"), Du Bois, and Garvey. Moreover, she exhibited the courage and principled positions of Wells-Barnett, including her style of hard-hitting criticisms. Like Terrell, who headed a major women's organization, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), Burroughs became president of the much larger Women's Convention (WC) Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention.(2)

Burroughs' belief in the dignity of manual labor, her strong feminist stance, and insistence on recognizing the poorer, working class African-Americans as important agents of racial uplift in fact may have contributed to her marginalization as an intellectual. In her personal and ideological identification with the black working class, Nannie Helen Burroughs resembled the early twentieth century black community leader Harry Haywood. In her outspoken militant defense of the black race, particularly black women, the race conscious Burroughs (like Haywood and writer James Baldwin), was committed to "telling the truth" about the "wrong doings" of white folk and, in her case, about the "white thinking" of members of her own race.(3) It may not have been possible for those who have written about African-American intellectuals to include a woman who was not a college graduate and who so strongly identified with the black working-class. Consistently, she declared: "I swear by my plain people. There are none like them . . . 'nowhere in this country is the situation of the colored man in America more clearly recognized and soundly analyzed than in the homes of the humblest. …

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