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Nannie Helen Burroughs

For over two years she has stood outside at the front door of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. She has been there in good weather and foul.

All the while, in spring or winter, she has been wearing a fur piece. She has greeted passersby and beckoned them to come inside and see the Historical Society’s landmark exhibit commemorating the 150th anniversary of emancipation.

Nannie Helen Burroughs died a long time ago but her life-like image painted on a cut-out of plywood has been the eye-catcher for the Historical Society’s exhibit. The real Miss Burroughs had a life worthy of an exhibit just about her.

Born in the spring of 1879 in Orange County, VA, Nannie Helen Burroughs was five years old when her mother, a widow, took her to live in Washington, D.C. Nannie Helen was enrolled in school and graduated from high school with honors in 1896. There were few positions open for a young black woman but she would not be defeated.

In 1900 she became the leader of the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention, an African-American Baptist organization. It was in that role that she attended the first Congress of the Baptist World Alliance which was held in July 1905 in London.

Nannie Helen Burroughs in 1909.
Nannie Helen Burroughs in 1909.

Miss Burroughs addressed a vast crowd in Hyde Park near the famed Marble Arch. She was the last speaker of the day and the crowd listened intently and never forgot the impression made by the young black woman from America. She spoke on “The Triumph of Truth.” How big was the crowd? Song sheets were distributed and they gave out 10,000 copies and it was not enough!

She also spoke before the entire Congress and her subject was “Woman’s Work.” She recited a long list of women active in the modern missions movement. She concluded her address with an illustration. She told of a beggar asking a deacon for bread. The deacon insisted upon praying before eating and recited the Lord’s Prayer.

“The hungry man fixed his eyes on the deacon and watched him as he placed the knife into the bread. Observing how thin the slice, he said: ‘Deacon, did you say ‘Our Father’? Then that means you are my brother? Then, if that is so, will you please cut it thicker, since we are kin?’”

Miss Burrough drove her point home. “And so for hungry and starving Africa, for her sons and daughters, who are my brethren and sisters, for these I ask you to ‘cut the slice a little thicker.’”

Nannie Helen Burroughs cut her slices thick for hurting humanity. Four years after her London experience she bought six acres in Washington’s Lincoln Heights neighborhood and upon a hill she built a school. It was a junior college for women and its motto was, “The School of the three Bs” – the Bible, bathtub and broom. Cleanliness and godliness were the foundations of the Burroughs School.

She began her own missionary magazine, called The Worker, and published missions manuals for young people and adults. She traveled widely as a missions speaker.

In the 1930s a relationship formed between Miss Burroughs and Blanche Sydnor White, the dynamic head of Woman’s Missionary Union of Virginia. For years the Burroughs School received financial aid from WMU of Virginia and frequently Miss Burroughs was a platform speaker at the WMU annual meetings.

Several years ago this columnist visited the Burroughs School in preparation for one of the issues of our children’s magazine, Heritage Seekers. The school had changed its focus from young women to children but the vision and mission of the founder was quite evident.

I think Miss Burroughs’ image has been a good welcoming sign for the Historical Society. We change the greeting on the chalkboard in her hands. Maybe we should write her own plea for the world to cut the slices thicker for those in need.

Virginia Baptist Mission Board BlogFred Anderson is the executive director emeritus of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society as well as the Center for Baptist Heritage & Studies.