National

MLK, Nannie Helen Burroughs and ‘God’s School on the Hill’

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The leaders of the Progressive National Baptist Convention (PNBC) spent much of this week in San Antonio at a mid-winter board meeting that started on the annual holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., beloved civil rights figure and pivotal member of the historic organization.

While participants, as they have done in years past, paid homage to the late Dr. King, discussion often concerned education, social justice and other causes that educator, activist and entrepreneur Nannie Helen Burroughs — a woman of great significance to King and PNBC — had advanced in the decades preceding the civil rights movement.

“We have been consistent in living out the dreams of our forefathers and foremothers as exemplified by the life and witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nannie Helen Burroughs and those great heroes and sheroes of the civil and human rights movements throughout the Diaspora,” said the Rev. Dr. Tyrone Pitts, executive director of the PNBC’s Community Development Corporation (CDC).

Resolutions passed at the 58th annual session in Atlanta last year dictate the agenda PNBC continues to carry out from its headquarters at 601 50th Street NE, a six-acre compound on which Burroughs opened the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls more than a century ago.

“The PNBC is an international Christian Baptist denomination in D.C. that has churches throughout the world that are lifting up the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, addressing racial, social, economic and environmental issues and providing opportunities for people to support those who are engaged in the struggle against oppression and for freedom, peace and justice,” Pitts said.

In August, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), Ward 7 Council member Vincent C. Gray (D) and others broke ground on Providence Place, part of what’s been described as a plan to bring more affordable housing to Ward 7.

Upon its completion, Providence Place will join four buildings currently on 601 50th Street NE, including what’s known as The Monroe School and Nannie Helen Burroughs 1928 Trades Building, where PNBC conducts business.

The new structure will consist of 93 units of affordable housing, more than a third of which has been set aside for people currently living in Lincoln Heights and Richardson Dwellings in Northeast.

“Providence Place is where we believe that God ordained us to carry on the legacy of Dr. Nannie Helen Burroughs and those great souls that formed our convention 59 years ago,” Pitts said. “This is an example of our commitment to remain faithful to Jesus Christ and Jesus’ ministry as stated in Luke 4:16-18 and is an example of what Dr. Gardner C. Taylor stated at the time of our founding, that the Progressive National Baptist Convention ‘is the last best hope for Black Baptist.’

“Our commitment as the PNBC/CDC is to provide jobs, protect the environment, create affordable housing, develop viable healthy food centers to elevate the present Northeast food desert, and provide economic opportunities for the residents of our neighborhood,” he said.

Burroughs, King and PNBC

In 1909, Burroughs opened the National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls with the financial backing of the National Baptist Convention USA, an organization preceding PNBC. She had set out to equip women with the skills needed for leadership and service to the community, all from what people would come to know as “God’s School on the Hill.”

In 1954, decades after having met his parents, she invited King to speak before the women’s auxiliary she founded within the National Baptist Convention USA. By the time Black clergypeople broke ties with National Baptist Convention USA to form PNBC, Burroughs, a woman with a deep religious conviction, had already served 13 years as president of what ultimately became the Women’s Convention.

Burroughs, born in Orange County, Virginia, during the late 19th century, shaped her worldview as a student at what’s now called Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. There, she organized a literary society and met Anna Julia Cooper and Mary Church Terrell, two major figures in the civil rights and suffrage movements. The denial of teaching opportunities after graduation, in part due to her skin tone, inspired Burroughs’ advocacy for women on the bottom of the social ladder.

By 1961, the year that Burroughs died, the Rev. L. Venchael Booth and other clergypeople launched PNBC after the National Baptist Convention USA denied King’s ascension to the presidency of its Congress of Christian Education, and issued a legal challenge of Gardner C. Taylor’s election as convention president. Those conflicts caused a split and represented tension among Black people from all walks of life who questioned multiracial organizations acting slow to condemn systemic racism.

A few years after its founding, PNBC moved its headquarters to the District, a location thought more suitable for shaping policy. In the early 1980s, after a stint on Georgia Avenue in Northwest, PNBC transitioned to 601 50th Street NE after purchasing that property from the Nannie Helen Burroughs Scholarship Fund.

By that time, the defunct National Trade and Professional School for Women and Girls had been renamed in Burroughs’ honor. From that point on, PNBC would continue to expand its civil and human rights advocacy in the United States and abroad, all while renovating the historic space.

Today, PNBC boasts a global membership of more than 1.5 million people. In 2018, the organization elected the Rev. Dr. Timothy Stewart of Bethel Baptist Church in Nassau, Bahamas, as its first leader not from the United States. Later this year, PNBC will further its global aspirations during a Pan-African conference in South Africa intended to solidify bonds with young theologians committed to combating social injustice.

“It is critical for us that the youth maximize their gifts and potential so they can be favorably impactful in every institution that they are a part of — the home, church, school, business and governments,” Stewart said. “We want them to be able to be agents of change. A critical part of that is preparation and mentoring and giving them the opportunities necessary in order to develop the gifts and their abilities. They can step up and step into offices and carry out responsibilities when we are no longer on the scene.”

Looking to the Future

The 2000s brought the passage of No Child Left Behind, the Great Recession, gentrification and other events and policy that shaped decisions about preparing youth for a changing economy.

In their endeavor to meet the demands of families seeking quality education for their children, District public and public charter schools have devoted resources to the launch of academies and collaborations with community partners and corporations that provide real-world experiences for students.

Atop the hill overlooking 50th Street and Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue in Northeast, The Monroe School has carried on Burroughs’ legacy with an inclusion program that prepares high school students, including those with special needs, for college and careers.

This endeavor started in 2006 when The Monroe School founder and CEO Ruth Logan rented dormitory space in the Nannie Helen Burroughs Trades School. By 2015, The Monroe School occupied the third floor of Nannie Helen Burroughs School, eventually taking over the entire building within a year. Today, it serves nearly 50 young people, many of whom suffer from homelessness, mental illness, and a bevy of other issues stemming from their environment.

In addition to the core subject areas, The Monroe School offers training in video production, with plans to expand into other trades via community partnerships. Logan, an educator of Liberian descent raised in the D.C. metropolitan area, expressed her desire that Providence Place’s construction in front of The Monroe School brings community service opportunities for students.

For the time being, however, she has focused her attention on Black History Month, an occasion she and teachers at The Monroe School have used to introduce students to Burroughs.

“The students know about the area and surroundings, but I’m fascinated with what they don’t know about Dr. Burroughs,” Logan said. “During Women’s History Month and Black History Month, Dr. Burroughs becomes one of the individuals [mentioned], researched and presented in projects. We’re keeping that legacy alive. We’re making sure students learn about what she brought to the city, and what she means to education at The Monroe School.”

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