Slowe-Burrill House

Domestic two story dwelling with a porch leading to the main entrance. The house sits atop a small
Slowe-Burrill House

Photograph by Eric Griffitts, courtesy of Washington, DC Historic Preservation Office

Quick Facts
Washington, DC
Education and social history, LGBT History
Listed in the National Register – Reference number 100005324
The Slowe-Burrill House, listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 2020, is significant for its association with Lucy Slowe, one of the foremost women involved in the field of African American education in early twentieth century in Washington, DC. Early in her career, Slowe was so highly regarded that the District chose her to establish the first African American junior high school in the city. But it was as the first Dean of Women at Howard University where Slowe left her greatest mark. During her tenure at Howard, she supported expanding educational opportunities for women students. She helped introduce curriculum changes and persuaded female students to pursue careers outside of education, further diversifying opportunity for females attending Howard. Slowe’s relationship with her students extended beyond the classroom to the confines of her own home in the District of Columbia. 

In her role as Dean of Women, Slowe oversaw the construction of the university’s first women’s dormitories. Beyond her prescribed duties at Howard, Slowe founded the National Association of College Women, which she led as president for several years before it evolved to become the National Association of University Women. Slowe also founded the Association of Advisors to Women in Colored Schools, the Association of Deans of Women and Advisors to Girls in Negro Schools, and assisted civic leader Mary McLeod Bethune in the 1935 creation of the National Council of Negro Women, where she served as the secretary. Slowe was additionally involved with the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and was also regularly consulted by women in administrative roles at other universities nationwide, who wrote to her for professional advice.

The Queen Ann style home was built by James T. Ward in 1890, and in 1922 Slowe and Burrill bought the house together. Slowe’s partner, Mary Burrill was also a dedicated educator throughout her life. She taught at several District schools during her career, but her longest tenure was at Dunbar High School. Slowe and Burrill remain the best-known example of a same-sex female couple in Washington, DC during the early twentieth century. The women largely practiced discretion and led private lives due to societal non-acceptance of alternative lifestyles at this time. Slowe and Burrill lived together as life partners for more than twenty years. Their relationship parallels same sex relationships in the District, where individuals were pressured to remain “in the closet” to escape persecution and societal prejudice against LGBTQ lifestyles during the early twentieth century. Concealing lifestyle and sexual preferences during this time was critical to self-preservation, especially for those with social and professional goals. 

Same-sex cohabitation among single women became increasingly common in the African American community during the 1920s. However, this did not extend to an acceptance of gay and lesbian lifestyles. It is generally believed that Slowe and Burrill concealed their relationship from the public eye in order to live together while also pursuing their own professional goals. In the era they lived, society did not accept either equal rights for African Americans or LGBTQ individuals. Even the African American community proved mostly unwilling to accept same sex relationships or alternative lifestyles. This can be partly attributed to the beliefs of some of the community that achieving civil rights meant obtaining public respectability from the white community, and alternative lifestyles that flaunted social norms were not viewed as respectable.

Last updated: June 17, 2021