Burroughs was born May 2, 1879, in Orange County, Virginia, the daughter of John and Virginia “Jennie” Burroughs. In 1883, her mother left her husband, taking Burroughs and her sister, and moved to Washington, D.C. Burroughs attended the M Street High School where she studied domestic science and achieved high academic honors. During this period of her life she met Mary Church Terrell and Anna Julia Cooper, two prominent Negro women who became her role models.
When she graduated, Burroughs attempted to attain a position as a teacher in the Washington school system but was denied the job. She then moved to Philadelphia to work in the office of the Christian Banner while also working part-time for Rev. Lewis Jordin at the National Baptist Convention (NBC). She later relocated to Louisville, Kentucky to become a secretary for the Foreign Mission Board of the NBC. A speech she gave at the 1900 annual conference of the NBC, in which she argued for women’s increased involvement in the organization, led to the creation of the Woman’s Convention Auxiliary (WC). Burroughs served as corresponding secretary until 1948. She was then elected president and served in that capacity until her death in 1961.
In 1909 Burroughs founded the National Training School for Women and Girls. It was the first school in the nation to provide vocational training for African-American females. She was instrumental in persuading the National Baptist Convention to sponsor the institution and purchase the land for it. Burroughs ran the school and it was managed entirely by African-Americans. Many disagreed with the school curriculum that trained young women to become efficient wage earners as well as community activists. Burroughs also created her own history course to inform women about societal influences on Negroes in history. The school was renamed in her honor in 1964.
A well-known, eloquent speaker and writer, Burroughs was active in the National Association of Colored Women, which helped found; the National Association of Wage Earners; and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. She toured the country denouncing segregation, employment discrimination and inequality. A staunch feminist, Burroughs believed suffrage for women was the key to political power to end discrimination. In spite of or perhaps because of her criticism of President Herbert Hoover’s silence on lynching, she was appointed in 1928 to chair a commission on housing for African Americans in conjunction with his White House Conference on Home Building.
Burroughs never married. Instead she devoted her entire life to her work as a theologian, philosopher, activist, educator, intellectual and evangelist. She defied societal restrictions on her race and gender and her work foreshadowed the women’s and civil rights movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
She passed away of natural causes alone in her Washington home on May 20, 1961.