Nannie Helen Burroughs was an educator, religious leader, and social activist who helped found the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention (NBC). In August 1954, she invited Martin Luther King, Jr., the young son of her friends, Martin Luther King and Alberta Williams King, to address the Auxiliary on “The Vision of the World Made New.” In a letter to King, Jr., thanking him for his speech, she wrote, “What your message did to their thinking and to their faith is ‘bread cast upon the water’ that will be seen day by day in their good works in their communities”.
Born in Orange, Virginia, in 1879, Burroughs moved to Washington, D.C., where she attended high school, in 1883. She worked in Louisville, Kentucky, from 1898 to 1909 as a bookkeeper and editorial secretary of the Foreign Mission Board of the NBC. After helping to found the Women’s Auxiliary of the NBC, Burroughs convinced the group to establish the National Training School for Women and Girls in 1909. She served as president of that institution until her death in 1961. In 1964 the school was renamed the Nannie Helen Burroughs School.
As part of a network of strong black club women in the first half of the twentieth century, Burroughs was active in the National Association of Colored Women, the National Association of Wage Earners, and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. A well known speaker and writer, she was appointed by President Herbert Hoover to chair a special committee on housing for African Americans. She appeared with Carter G. Woodson and Alain Locke at a meeting of the Association in 1927, and her talk was reported in the Journal of Negro History: “By a forceful address Miss Nannie H. Burroughs emphasized the duty the Negro owes to himself to learn his own story"
Nannie Burroughs continued to support Martin Luther King, Jr. until her death. During the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 she wrote King’s mother, Alberta, expressing her interest in the “calm, sure way that Junior is standing up for right and righteousness” (Burroughs, 4 February 1956). After King was stabbed in 1958, she telegrammed: “As a friend of yours and of the great cause to which you are giving the last ounce of your devotion I am praying for you” (Burroughs to King, 25 September 1958).