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Unconventional Leaders (Part 2)

On Friday, Nick Salvatore wrote about Amos Webber—a leader who wasn’t a president or a businessman, but a janitor. The lesson: leadership can happen anywhere.  Continuing the series, Salvatore writes about Nannie Helen Burroughs—another leader who doesn’t exactly fit the mold.

Nannie Helen Burroughs differed from Amos Webber in background, in personality, and in her approach to leadership; but she was no less insistent in claiming democratic rights for, and in conjunction with, local black communities. Born in Orange County, Virginia in 1879, her mother moved the family to Washington, D.C. following her husband’s death in 1884. Raised a Baptist, and well educated (in 1896 she graduated from Washington’s Colored High School, now Dunbar High), Burroughs moved to Louisville, Kentucky the following year to work for the Foreign Mission Board of the National Baptist Convention (known as the NBC), then as now the largest organization of black church members in the nation.  At the Richmond meeting of the NBC in 1900, Burroughs, at the ripe old age of 21, helped win the five year struggle within the organization over whether to establish a Woman’s Convention. In a speech she entitled, “How the Sisters are Hindered from Helping,” Burroughs said, in part: “For a number of years there has been a righteous discontent, a burning zeal to go forward in [Christ’s] name among the Baptist women of our churches and it will be the dynamic force in the religious campaign at the opening of the 20th century.” Her analysis of women’s role in local church communities and the importance of their own organization within the NBC finally carried the day and the  Woman’s Convention, Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention, was established. Nannie Helen Burroughs would lead that group from 1900 until she stepped down in 1960. [Higgenbotham, ch. 6]

Burroughs was a human dynamo. In her first year in office she traveled over 22,000 miles, delivered 215 speeches, organized 12 local branches of the Convention, wrote over 9,000 letters and received almost 5,000 in return. Young, single (as she would remain throughout her life), and burning with that “righteous discontent” to spread her faith and her social vision, Burroughs sought to expand the Women’s Convention in two important ways: by encouraging a democratic inclusion at the annual meeting, always held in conjunction with the NBC convention; and by integrating into her faith a potent social and political analysis of the problems and potential of American democracy. At a time when many religious people, black and white, held their faith as a guide solely to the condition of the inner soul and its salvation, and considered women’s role as limited to the  sphere of family, this approach made Burroughs a force, at times a contentious one, within black America.

Burroughs knew, for example, that many of black women in the organization came from middle-and upper middle-class families. How else could they afford the travel expenses, membership fees, and magazine subscription costs? Burroughs wanted a more democratic sisterhood at the Convention meetings, and urged local branches to raise funds collectively, from within their church communities, to send different delegates each year to the annual meetings. This could mean difficult discussions with the pastor, who may not have been supportive of such activism by women, or of revenue sharing, but the goal of organizing more women to engage their world was worth the tension. Her own social vision also proved attractive to the growing membership. Burroughs was very much in a Social Gospel tradition and saw the very depth of her faith as demanding interaction with the world as found. Questions of democracy, inequality, poverty, and education—to say nothing of segregation, racism, and lynching—were as much a part of her faith vision as her Christian’s belief in Christ’s saving power. Given her long tenure as the Convention’s leader, her influence touched at least three generations of black religious women. How did she use that influence?

Consider for a moment some of her early messages. In 1904, but eight years following the Plessy decision which declared separate but equal constitutional,  Burroughs urged her audience of women church activists to protest such conditions when they returned home, following the example of the black community of Richmond, Virginia which was then six months into what would be a two year boycott of the city’s segregated public transportation.  A decade later, two years before the appearance of W. D. Griffith’s widely applauded racist movie depicting Black Reconstruction, “Birth of a Nation,” Burroughs proposed a joint task force of the Women’s Committee and the NAACP to counter negative images of blacks in film, literature, newspapers, and the popular stage. In 1919, she again focused on segregation in public facilities and in the same message stressed the need for an anti-lynching law. Nor were these concerns merely a phase in her life. Nearly a quarter of a century later, in the aftermath of race riots by white mobs against the black community in both New York and Detroit, Burroughs reminded her delegates of the meaning of their American traditions.  The “righteous discontent” expressed by African Americans about such atrocities, she explained, echoed a similar discontent that motivated the revolutionary generation of the 1770s.  “Christianity and democracy must meet and answer the question of color, squarely and justly,” she insisted, “or both are done for as progressive, enduring world forces.”

The yearly programs at the Convention were quite rich. Sessions on religious themes, on building local church organizations, on inter-faith outreach were plentiful, and there was always a powerful preacher—a J. Pius Barber, a Martin Luther King, Sr. & later Jr. as well, a C. L. Franklin—to deliver the message, but other themes were also prominent. As early as 1907, one long afternoon program began with devotionals, and then proceeded series of short talks, followed by discussion, on such topics as needed social reforms, the press and racial attitudes, developments in “race sentiments” nationally, and on the relation of labor and immigration policies to the condition of African Americans. What was important in this was, of course, the themes raised, but there was another element as well. Black women gave these talks, to audiences of black women of widely varying social, economic, and educational backgrounds. The underlying message in all the panels was really quite direct: Consider what you have heard, discuss it with fellow delegates, bring it back to your church committees at home, become active in spreading awareness and creating a response to these problems. Burroughs was not alone in this effort among African Americans—for example, Carter G. Woodson and his army of book salesman with the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History did important work as well. But Burroughs’ focus on church women and her long tenure as a national leader, point both to her part in challenging the ministerial male prerogative within the NBC and, in the process, encourage the emergence of a broader mass movement for social justice that provided the essential platform upon which many a more well-known leader would eventually stand.

While Burroughs did not always specifically underscore the need to study the past, it was  implicit in all she did. A race-proud woman, she propelled her black audiences to discover for themselves an honest historical past as an alternative to the demeaning version projected by the dominant society. In her 1926 program for women, Burroughs specified the need to struggle actively against segregation and lynching, and for political rights and inter-racial understanding in compliance with God’s will. Her closing point offered an even broader vision for discussion in local church circles over the coming year. The goal, she suggested, was “The awakening of race consciousness and the stimulation of race pride through the Study of Race History.” It is important to note that many of these women, and some men, responded to Burroughs’ messages over the decades. Letters poured into her office from church women in large urban areas as well as small, rural crossroad communities, from all sections of the nation, soliciting her opinion on the writer’s local political efforts against segregation, attempts at interracial activities, and, chapter building in local church communities. From the depths of Mississippi in 1948 came a request for her photo to adorn the walls of the Nannie H. Burroughs Mission Club as it held its annual program during Negro History Week.[i] It was not that every Baptist woman responded similarly. Yet we will never appreciate the full impact of Nannie Helen Burroughs’ appeal to history as well as faith in pursuit of a more assertive concept of democracy until we can know more about what actually occurred in those church meetings and discussions across the black Baptist world where Burroughs’ messages, pamphlets, and pageant materials encouraged new visions and more complete self-definitions.

Burroughs, who died in 1961, a year after stepping down from her position as president of the Woman’s Convention, operated on a different scale than Amos Webber (LINK). Hers was a national stage, not one local community, and her task as a leader was to teach, to urge, and to support her members in their local work. But she and Webber shared a common understanding of the necessity for local communities themselves to work to find solutions to the varied common problems black Americans faced.

Tomorrow, Nick Salvatore will discuss another community organize and leader.

Nick Salvatore is the Maurice and Hinda Neufeld Founders Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations. You can learn more about Salvatore here. (link)

[i] See, for example, Bertha Allen to “Dear Co-Worker,” April 24, 1934, Oakland, CA, Box 1, folder A-AL; Vivienne L. Peck to Burroughs, May 26, 1944, Seattle, Box 23; Mary L. Boothe to Burroughs, January 31, 1948, Meridan, MS, Box 2, folder BON-BOO; all in Nannie H. Burroughs Papers, Library of Congress (Washington, D. C.).



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