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Sunday, May 19, 2024
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A Hidden Deanwood: The Legacy of Nannie Helen Burroughs

Nannie Helen Burroughs School is a few blocks away from my home. Recently, I walked past the school to reflect on and develop more depth for this article. From a distance I saw the entrance, a faded white arch with fancy cursive writing that read, “Progressive National Baptist Convention.” I imagined a woman standing tall with shoulders back, wearing a long-sleeved white dress buttoned to the neck with a dramatic collar, similar to the images I had seen in history books, and dark skin that reminded me of my aunts, cousins and close friends.

I imagined a woman who lived in a world that didn’t represent the life she desired for herself and others. Slowly and patiently she fought to create the world that lived in her heart. A world that allowed women to vote, earn a living wage and develop skills beyond domestic work.

As I walked the school grounds, a deeper appreciation grew inside of me. A respect beyond gestures that had become trivialized, such as May 10 being designated Nannie Helen Burroughs Day, or the naming of an avenue. I became curious about the woman excluded from most school history books and curricula but revered and celebrated by the seniors in my neighborhood.

Deanwood is a lovely community, a two-square-mile enclave with a rich history, particularly women’s history. Neighborhood folks are greeted by murals celebrating the contributions of great leaders; dozens of cultural and historical markers celebrate the community’s resilience.

My daily commute includes traveling down Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE, turning left onto Minnesota Avenue and riding the train to work. Although Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue is a major artery, I had never paused to research Burroughs and her ties to the Deanwood community.

Every neighbor I talked with recognized her name, but many were surprised when I shared some of the extraordinary contributions she made to the women’s suffrage movement and women’s liberation. Realizing that key parts of Burroughs’ impactful life were not common knowledge prompted me to honor Women’s History Month by shining a light on her life and linkage to Deanwood.

Burroughs was born May 2, 1879, in Virginia. After the death of her sister and father she and her mother moved to DC. She did well in school and graduated from M Street High School (now Paul Laurence Dunbar High School). She looked to Anna J. Cooper and Mary Church Terrell, black women leading the way in the suffrage movement, as role models and friends.

The Nannie Helen Burroughs School, formerly known as the National Training School for Women and Girls Inc., is located in Deanwood at 601 50th St. NE. Founded by Burroughs in 1909, the school started as a private coeducational elementary school. It was the first school in the nation to provide vocational training to African American females, who had limited opportunities at the time.

During the formative stages Burroughs taught all the classes herself in a small farmhouse, with a student population of 31. Owing to the high teaching quality, the school began to grow, gaining national popularity. By 1920 it had over 100 students and an international student body.  Women were able to learn an array of vocational and academic subjects and skills ranging from public speaking to sewing, printing, laundering, shoe repair, cooking, music and physical education.

The school was revolutionary for the time, offering curricula such as African American history to educate women to be proud of their race. By 1928, the Trades Hall, now a historic landmark, was built, and its dedication ceremony featured such notable speakers as Mary McLeod Bethune.

Burroughs died in Washington of natural causes in 1961 at the age of 85. She never married or had children. Her entire life was dedicated to the elevation of women and girls and to social justice work. The Nannie Helen Burroughs school is cloistered away from the buzzing parts of the Deanwood community. Although marked with a placard on the Greater Deanwood Heritage Trail, the school is easily overlooked by neighbors and passersby.

After doing my research the walk down Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue feels different. I am more informed, reflective and appreciative of the work and legacy of a courageous woman who sacrificed much to benefit many.

Leniqua’dominique Jenkins works on the DC Council but the views expressed here are her own. She can be reached at jenkinseastoftheriver@gmail.com.

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