Margaret Burroughs: In Memoriam
Monday, November 22, 2010
I lost one of my personal links to the lineage of Black Liberation yesterday. Chicago legend Dr. Margaret T. Burroughs, co-founder of Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African-American History, died at age 95.
A political activist, historian, poet, educator, and artist, Margaret was born in St. Rose, LA, moved to Chicago with her parents as a teenager, and later earned degrees at the Art Institute of Chicago. Although most of the mainstream media reports on her death have ignored her radical political background and history, she attended her very first demonstration—protesting the lynching of blacks in the U.S.—with future Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks in the 30s, and her home later became a meeting place for prominent black leaders of the day, including sociologist and NAACP founder W.E.B DuBois and novelist James Baldwin.
Margaret taught art at Du Sable High School in Bronzeville for over 20 years, and from 1969-79 she was a professor of humanities at Kennedy-King College. While at Du Sable, she was questioned by the Chicago Board of Education about a petition drive she was leading to demand that the U.S. government return the passport and end its harassment of one of the 20th century’s greatest U.S. revolutionaries and Renaissance Men, Paul Robeson. At that time, the accomplished athlete and stage and screen actor had been blacklisted by Hollywood and Broadway, and targeted for his political ideology and organizing by McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), respectively. And when Margaret was pressured to give the Board of Education information about other petitioners, she refused to name names.
Soon thereafter, she took a sabbatical from teaching and lived in Mexico for a year, where she met the renowned Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, and learned the printmaking for which she eventually became famous. Some of her beautiful linoleum block prints, with powerful images describing the African-American experience, are hanging on my daughter’s bedroom walls today.
While teaching and being forced to use Euro-centric textbooks that ignored black history, Margaret determined that she needed to help bring the African-American story to the world. In the 40s, she helped co-found an organization that still supports the development of burgeoning black artists, the South Side Community Art Center. And, in 1961, along with her second husband, Charles, and others, she opened the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art, later the DuSable Museum (renamed after Chicago’s first permanent settler, Haitian trader Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable), on the first floor of her home on South Michigan Avenue.
“She understood the role of a museum like this in the lives of all people, especially children who she felt needed heroes in their lives,” said the chairwoman of the DuSable board of trustees, Cheryl Blackwell Bryson. “To the end, she was sharp, passionate and a critical thinker.”
Arab American attorney Rouhy Shalabi, who served with Margaret on the Chicago Park District Board of Commissioners for many years, said of her passing: “She’s an icon who had incredible strength and compassion. She had the energy of a 20-year-old and lived every day to the fullest. We developed a great friendship, and I’m going to miss her very much.”
For almost 30 years, my family has attended, along with Margaret, a Christmas Eve party at the home of our dear friends. Jim Fennerty, who, along with his wife Janet and their children, host the annual gathering, and are as close to Margaret as anyone in Chicago, said, “She taught art and poetry writing to inmates at Stateville Penitentiary, near Joliet, IL, for many years. Margaret cared deeply about the poor and oppressed, and she fought against poverty, racism, and oppression her whole life. She visited Cuba many times and loved going because, as she said, ‘There is no racism there. The Cubans believe in true equality for all.’’
In recent years, she paid most of her attention to the children and youth at the party, performing her poetry, distributing her prints, and encouraging them to think about what their legacy in this life would be.
Her own legacy is secure. Having earned dozens of honors over her storied career, she most recently received the Legends and Legacy Award from the Art Institute of Chicago, and a wing in the South Shore Cultural Center was dedicated to her work in early 2010. She also authored numerous children’s books and volumes of poetry, including What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black? and Africa, My Africa.
Margaret is survived by her son and four grandsons. She did not want a funeral, but a public memorial will be held early next year. I anticipate that it will be a huge event, overflowing with the joy and passion that marked her life. And when my daughter asks who is being celebrated, I will say to her, “That’s Sitto (“Grandma” in Arabic) Margaret, who loved and cared about you, and all the children of the world, as much as her own.”
Hatem Abudayyeh, AAAN Executive Director