Nannie H. Burroughs

“Seldom concerned about conservative black male or middle-class sensibilities in general, Burroughs articulated militant positions on most issues and, in so doing, predated some of the more radical stances taken by civil rights and black power activists during the late 1960s and 1970s.”(Harley, 1996, 64)

Nannie Helen Burroughs was a women’s rights and worker’s rights activist, orator, journalist, teacher, religious leader, and school principal. To say she was an active member of the Baptist Church would be a drastic omission. She was an essential member who launched a feminist movement within the church with her speech in “How the sisters are hindered from helping,” which she gave at a national Baptist convention. This speech and its author launched the Women’s Convention, and Burroughs became its leader. She was also the head of the National Organization of Colored Women, which is discussed more in depth in other pages on this website. She started the first vocational school for African American women in the country. She was a founder, corresponding secretary, and president of the National Baptist Convention and its Women’s Convention for more than sixty years. She founded the National Association of Wage Earners, and was president of this organization, with Mary McLeod Bethune as vice president.


Hammond, Lily Hardy, Mrs., 1859-. In the Vanguard of a Race. New York: Council of women for home missions and Missionary education movement of the United States and Canada, 1922.


An essential report on the status of housing available to African-Americans and the factors and consequences of this topic, Burroughs was the chairperson of the committee that produced this report. It was a vanguard study and document that exposed institutionalized racism in the housing market, in state housing departments, and social trends that segregated Black communities into inferior and more expensive housing conditions. The report contains extensive, detailed, and far-reaching data The report contains extensive census data of the number of African-Americans living in the country, in rural and urban areas, and in each specific areas. It covered the income levels and living condition of the community and in subsequent chapters details the determining factors and the consequences. This report covers the changing population of a community in the midst of a Great Migration, as well as the white supremacist response to arriving or thriving Black communities: race riots, terrorism, etc. Some excepts are featured below.



From the Introduction:

“Quite apart…from these simple economic factors are social and cultural factors…which tend…to give greater intensity and permanence to their economic segregation, and, on the other hand, to create novel difficulties which other groups experience only slightly or not at all.” (1)

This report addresses the discrimination specific to the African-American community that impede access to affordable housing, and sometimes impede access to inhabitable housing. The report goes on to mention many specific examples of individuals as well as over patterns of housing discrimination.

 “The literature of Negro housing is virtually a literature of the slums. The fact is scarcely challengeable, but it has been sought, commonly and unfortunately, to explain these in terms of a fixed destiny, a propensity to depreciation, a uniform emotional adjustment to the setting, an ability to subsist on less than others require.” (2)

Credit loans to African-Americans were considered higher risk, thus they were more expensive for the members of this community. They were also excluded from most housing areas because landlords refused to rent to them, or because entering a majority white neighborhood would mean they would face intimidation and violence. The result of this was highly segregated housing, in which African-Americans were delegated to the least adequate housing.

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“In virtually every city of the North, Negro tenants are required to pay not merely excessive rentals for the properties occupied, but a considerable higher amount than is paid by white families who preceded them, or who are living in similar properties. This is the result of the limitation of available dwellings for this element of the population…In Chicago these rent increases for Negroes were found to range from 20 to 50 per cent.”(p 14)


Segregation Ordinances and Private Covenants

“The common belief seems to be that Negroes are a single, homogeneous group, adaptable alike to the same types of environment; that the deteriorated areas, inherited by the low-income grops of Negroes as a result of their poverty, are alone theirs by right of race.” (35)


Mortality and Negro Housing

“We may begin by saying that Negro death rates are nearly twice as high as the white; that they are higher in the North than in the South; that they are higher in cities than in the country; that the disparity between Negro urban and rural rates is over two and one-half times greater than that between white urban and rural rates; that Negro urban death rates are highest in the South. The diseases which, authorities agree, are due largely to unfavorable sanitary conditions and low economic status, show at present the greatest disparity between Negro and white rates.” (57)







The Committee on Negro Housing, headed by Burroughs, gives a recommendation to address the discriminatory housing practices and the deleterious conditions of African-American housing.

Letter from Nannie Burroughs to W.E.B. Dubois, 1925

In 1925, Nannie Burroughs wrote to Dubois to request that an article be printed in The Crisis magazine. Burroughs writes that the article is history, and thus cannot be published in just any publication. We see the power and force of Burroughs, referenced by other primary sources, in the closing lines. Do not disappoint me. The way in which she describe the article as history and not simply a news items hints at the awareness Burroughs has for the historical importance of her work. She is part of a movement, and this movement is making history, and she knows it.

Burroughs, Nannie Helen, 1879-. Letter from Nannie Burroughs to W. E. B. Du Bois, March 19, 1925. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.


Letter from MLK to Nannie Burroughs


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accepts an invitation of Burroughs to speak at the Women’s Convention’s Youth Program.

Note: Courtney Chartier, Head of Research Services at Emory University points out that MLK wrote a portion of his eulogy for the four girls killed in the Birmingham Church bombing on a copy of Burrough’s Here and Beyond the Sunset, which she had given to him as a gift. Why did he use that booklet to write the eulogy?  Was it just handy? Was he reading it when he started the work? Did he take an inspiration from her work? The booklet is among the MLK papers at Morehouse College.