Nannie Helen Burroughs

Up from the Depths - Jan. 25, 1904

Nannie Helen Burroughs
January 25, 1904— Memphis, Tennessee
Print friendly

This version of Burroughs' famous speech was reported in the Colored American, a weekly magazine published from 1893-1904 that featured stories on the achievements of African Americans.

[Like a black goddess of liberty who had come to bring messages of peace and love to her oppressed people, Miss Burroughs arose amid loud and continuous applause, standing like a statue for several minutes waiting for the applause to subside; she was a picture to behold. When quiet had been restored, Miss Burroughs spoke in part as follows:]

It would be the greatest pleasure of my life if Wendell Phillips, Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Chas. Sumner, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher were here tonight witnessing this magnificent scene of black professors, teachers and pupils in one of the grandest institutions of learning in the South.

The man who wrote this piece of poetry seems to have written it for me and for this occasion. He knew better than I, doubtless, that I would be called upon to present these lines and a large number would be present to hear them. The poet expressed the deepest craving of my heart when he wrote, “Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.” This should be the sentiment of every teacher, student and leader of the race with which we are identified.

[After touching upon the life of Toussaint L'Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, B. K. Bruce, Phyllis Wheatley, John M. Langston, Booker T. Washing, Prof. W. E. B. DeBois, Mrs. Francis Ellen Harper, Mrs. Mollie Church Terrell and Mrs. Fannie Barrier Williams, Miss Burroughs said:]

Look upon this great audience tonight and be not discouraged. Two thousand years ago our Anglo-Saxon friends were eating from the skulls of their ancestors in the hills of Europe, notwithstanding which fact today they are the most powerful people in the world. The same thing that made the white race great will make the black race great.

We must realize that we have to begin at the bottom; that if we would develop a full grown race we would begin low. Take the character of Jesus Christ, the humble position which he occupied, at no time was he weighed in the balance and found wanting. God took David from the low position of a shepherd boy and made him King. Paul, one of the greatest and most intelligent characters in the Bible, on his way to Damascus, got so high that the Lord had to knock him down.

Did you ever plant flowers and corn and return and find the roots growing upward? No, for they grow downward. Did you ever know a man to invest his money in mountains unless for gold, silver and coal? These grow in the earth and they must be dug from it. Did you ever hear of a man who went to gather pearls, looking for them on the top of the water?

You ask me what made the white race great and I will tell you that the great secret was love, the blessed gospel and the art of commencing low. The Bible is the stepping stone to greatness. For, in as much as the Bible has been a great help in elevating the Saxon race, it will aid in elevating this race of ours. The black race is God’s race and I believe whatever we ask He will give to us. No one can go to the top alone; the man or woman who attempts to climb to the top alone will certainly fall. Some of our enemies say we are kin to monkeys and therefore will never reach the highest heights of civilization. If we can produce from monkeys a Frederick Douglass, a Bruce, a Langston and hundreds of others I might mention, we should be encouraged to continue the well begun work of preparing ourselves for every duty performed by other citizens of our country, regardless of what our enemies say.

I was in the city of Philadelphia some time ago in the white women’s convention and was invited to answer in a lecture this question, “What does the black race of America want?” The conclusion of my address was as follows: “We don’t want your teachers, we have our teachers; we don’t want your furniture, nor your clothes, we have plenty of clothes; we don’t want your doctors nor your preachers; we have our doctors and our preachers; we don’t want what you have earned, all we ask of you is a man’s chance. What we ask is fair play and to be let alone.”

Talk about dividing the fund for education; that white men are paying for our education. Our education was paid for in advance by our mothers and fathers, our great-grandmothers and our great-grandfathers. There is a great noise about the race problem—there is no race problem—it is simply a problem of justice and injustice. The Governor of Mississippi says the Negro is immoral, that education is not the thing for the Negro, that it is a curse and unfits him for farm work. If it is a curse it is a blessing.

No, they don’t want you to love education, but they do want you to love the jail, the workhouses and the penitentiary. The Negro can go into any jail in the United States and there is no color line. He can go into any penitentiary and on any farm and there will be no color line, but he cannot go into any place of amusement or any schoolhouse. It has been said that the Negro has begun to want and demand typewriters and stenographers. The Negro is not beginning to want, but he has been wanting and now he has them.

In Georgia there was a white man from the North visiting a school and when he was about to leave he asked the children what did they want him to tell the people when he returned home. One little boy said, “Tell them that we are risin’.” Another little boy raised his hand and said, “Mister, don’t tell them people that we are coming, tell them that we have already come.”

The Negro is making wonderful progress and that is why you hear so much about the race problem. They know that we are getting near them. They realize more than we that we are coming. Beneath the black skin of the Negro there is as much intelligence and morality as there is beneath the white skin of the blue-eyed and flaxen headed Anglo-Saxon. There is no field of labor, science or literature in which the Negro has not held his own.

While we are enumerating our wonderful progress we must not forget some of the stumbling blocks that impede our onward march. The Negro race often reminds me of popcorn. You know when you pop corn in a skillet, when it beings to pop, if you do not put a lid on it, it will all pop out. I guess the American prejudice is the lid to keep us in the skillet. If the lid didn't keep us in the skillet we would all pop out.

We have several ways of getting away from the race; some are bleaching out and others are straightening out. When we have almost bleached out, we straighten out the rest. I am sorry we are colored as we are—I am sorry all of us are not black. When we would get out, prejudice tells us to get out and pop with the rest.

The white man and the Negro are like the fable. Once a white man had a house which was said to be haunted, so he said to a Negro, “John, there are spooks in that house and if you can stay there you may have it.” John said, “Yes sir, boss.” We all like to have houses of our own. When John quit work he was very tired and he took a few quilts and spread them on the floor and fell upon them and there he went to sleep. About twelve o’clock he heard a great noise, he uncovered his head and began to look around and there was a great deathlike figure standing over him with his finger pointing down on him. He covered up again and decided to keep one eye out the next time, so he did, and there stood that same death like figure with that same finger pointing down on him. He began to think of the convenience that the carpenter had made whereby he might make his escape. He jumped up and made his way out of the house and ran about a mile and when he sat down to rest there was that same spook, and the spook said, “Tain’t nobody here but you and me, didn’t we have a run?” The Negro says, “Yes and ’tain’t half what it is gwine to be.”

Yes, we are living in a dark period and it is going to be worse for a while, but I believe that God will lead his people through. Let us not discuss leadership, but when the clarion note is sounded let the Negro go forth. What we want as a race is fair play.

[After paying eloquent tribute to President Roosevelt and ex-President Grover Cleveland in which the speaker said they were the greatest Presidents this country has ever had; Miss Burroughs concluded as follows:]

Negro soldiers have borne a conspicuous part in every war in which their country has engaged. The magnificent charge up San Juan Hill by our black boys in blue challenged the admiration not only of the American people, but liberty loving people throughout the world, as well. A race so true to its flag as we have been, remembering God and His teaching, will in the end be more than conquerors.

Bones, Brome. 1904. "A Revival in Education and General Progress." Colored American X (31): 1-4.