Synonymous with Chicago is the DuSable Museum, and inseparably linking them is Margaret Burroughs. Her versatility as an artist and activist matched the variety of institutions that benefited from her expertise and total dedication to the improvement of the city’s cultural and political life.
Born Victoria Margaret Taylor Nov. 1, 1915, in St. Rose, La., her father was a farmer who was also employed at a railroad warehouse. Her mother devoted her time to caring for the family and managing the home. In 1920, as the Harlem Renaissance began to flower, her family moved to Chicago and she attended Englewood High School, where one of her classmates was the legendary poet Gwendolyn Brooks. (Several others who would become famous artists, such as Charles White, Archibald Motley, Charles Sebree and Eldzier Cortor, were also her classmates.)
Sharing their love of literature and community affairs, they joined the youth division of the NAACP and Burroughs later earned her teacher’s certificate from Chicago Teacher’s College. Part of her civic duties and her activism was her role in the founding of South Side Community Arts Center in 1939, a facility that provided a platform for African-American artists to gather, perform and exhibit their art. Her pursuit of higher education continued at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in art education and subsequently a master’s degree in art education in 1948.
During this period of community engagement she met and married Bernard Gross in 1939. They divorced in 1947, and two years later she married Charles Gordon Burroughs, who was her husband until his death in 1994.
If her productive life can be said to have had a highlight, it was probably her involvement in the founding of the DuSable Museum of African-American History. From the inception of the museum as the Ebony Museum, she was an active member, helping to coordinate numerous exhibitions, conferences and programs over the years. With her husband by her side, they ushered in the DuSable, which was first located in their home in 1961. She was the museum’s first executive director and she often remarked how proud she was of the institution’s origins and growth. “We’re the only one that grew out of the indigenous Black community,” she said. “We weren’t started by anybody downtown, we were started by ordinary folks.” (It was through her inspiration and passion that Haki Madhubuti founded the Third World Press, and no discussion about the history of the press is offered without his mentioning the debt he owes to Burroughs for her help and influence.)
Burroughs was the executive director of the museum until she retired in 1985, and then she devoted her time to fundraising for the museum and other cultural organizations in the city and elsewhere. In 1973, the museum moved to its current location in Washington Park and today is considered the oldest museum of Black culture in the U.S. Both the museum and its original location on Michigan Avenue have been designated, respectively, National Register of Historic Places and Chicago landmarks.
Besides her activities at the museum, she maintained a long-term relationship as a teacher at DuSable High School. Coinciding with teaching her classes at DuSable was her courses in the humanities at Kennedy-King College, the city’s community college. In 1968, she taught art and culture at Elmhurst College. When Harold Washington became the city’s first African-American mayor, he appointed Burroughs as the Chicago Park District Commissioner, a position she would hold until 2010.
Curating and managing other artists’ productions was never an obstacle to Burroughs’ own creative efforts. In one of her most famous linocuts, “Birthday Party,” Black and white children are shown in a moment of jubilation. According to a review of the linocut, the work was deemed as typical of her broad, integrative outlook. “Through her career, as both a visual artist and a writer, she has often chosen themes concerning family, community, and history. ‘Art is communication,’ she has said, ‘I wish my art to speak not only for my people, but for all humanity. This aim is achieved in ‘Birthday Party,’ in which both Black and white children dance, while mothers cut cake in a quintessential image of neighbors and family enjoying a special day together.’” The painting puts in visual form Burroughs’ philosophy that “the color of skin is a minor difference among men which has been stretched beyond its importance.”
The “Birthday Party” and its humanistic quest is a pervasive theme in her art, and it’s not unusual to see a gathering of people in various colors. For example, “In the Faces of My People,” she carved five people staring at the viewer. One of the women is all Black, three of the people are half Black and half white and one is mostly white.
According to Wikipedia, “While Burroughs is attempting to blend together the Black and white communities, she also shows the barriers that stop the communities from uniting. None of the people in ‘The Faces of My People’ are looking at each other, and this implies a sense of disconnect among them. On another level, ‘The Faces of My People’ deals with diversity, is one summary of the work. This review of her work was supported by an estimate from the Collector magazine website that described Burroughs’ attempts to unify in the picture. ‘Burroughs sees her art as a catalyst for bringing people together. This tableau of diverse individuals illustrates her commitment to mutual respect and understanding.’”
Approximately a month before her death Nov. 21, 2010, Burroughs was honored by the Art Institute of Chicago with its Legends and Legacy Award. Madhubuti read a poem that he wrote for Burroughs entitled “Master of Colors and Canvas.” He recalled her as a one-of-a-kind educator, artist, institution builder and community leader. “When Margaret Burroughs spoke everyone listened,” he said. “She was never for the elite. She was always on the frontline trying to do that which is best, good, correct and just for the great majority of people in this country and the world.”