In Memoriam: Margaret Burroughs

Margaret Burroughs: In Memoriam

Photo from BlackPast


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


Read our September/October Newsletter

Read our September/October Newsletter here. Racial profiling work highlighted.


AAAN Board Statement on FBI Raids

Last Friday, September 24th, the FBI raided the homes of, and served Grand Jury subpoenas to, Hatem Abudayyeh, Executive Director of the Arab American Action Network (AAAN), and several other anti-war activists in Chicago, Michigan, and Minneapolis, and questioned others in North Carolina and California—essentially attempting to criminalize their strong and tireless advocacy against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and support for the rights of the peoples of Palestine and Colombia.

For many years, Hatem Abudayyeh has led the social services, cultural outreach, adult education, and youth development programming of the AAAN; and has advocated for the civil and human rights of Arabs and other immigrants in the U.S., as well as Palestinians and oppressed peoples across the world.  The Arab American Action Network denounces the raids on the homes of, and the serving of Grand Jury subpoenas to, these anti war activists in Chicago and across the country.  The FBI has overstepped its boundaries and targeted individuals based on their commitment to peacefully challenge U.S. policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Colombia.

The raids are unfounded and have violated these activists’ constitutional rights of free speech and freedom of assembly, rights that are supposed to be guaranteed without intimidation in the United States.  Furthermore, the raids are a waste of taxpayer dollars and are direct attempts to intimidate, as well as silence, these activists, their communities, and any voice of dissent.

We, as members of the Board of Directors of the Arab American Action Network, condemn this attack on our Executive Director, which is another in a long list of attacks on our community.  We stand in support of him and the other activists fighting for peace, justice, and an end to unjust U.S. policies across the world.

And we encourage participation in the national day of action on Monday, October 4th—call Eric Holder, U.S. Attorney General (202-353-1555), and demand that the Department of Justice end its harassment of anti-war and international solidarity activists, return all materials seized in the raids, and stop the Grand Jury subpoenas.

Care to Care

One thing that upsets me, I told the rest of the AAAN staff, is when my relatives say or believe racist things. And something that makes me happy is being outside on a nice day.

That’s how Shonettia Monique, wellness coordinator at the Chicago Freedom School, had us begin the self-care workshop she led us in last Friday. “I want you all to start by thinking,” she said, “about why you’re here. Why are you doing this work?” People mentioned their children, faith, the community, and the wonderful feeling that comes from making people’s lives easier by helping them navigate social services bureaucracy.

Next, we all write down 24 words describing what we believe in. Then we narrowed it down to twelve words, six words, three words, and one word. We shared our one word aloud. I had come to “love,” and expected others would too, but I was surprised to hear that almost all of the 30-some of us said something different. Justice, love, equality, Islam were a few.

We talked about why it’s so difficult to say “no.” We made pie charts about how fulfilled we feel in various areas, and talked about which parts of the body carry stress, anger, and fear. Many realized out loud that they don’t get much chance to think about their bodies, and they almost never do anything just for themselves, but always for their children, their families, their clients. We brainstormed self-care activities like alone time, taking walks, talking with friends, and wrote down something we wanted to get rid of (like a bad behavior or a grudge) and tore it to pieces. We split into pairs and one at a time talked for five minutes about what we need in our lives, or what we want to change. We weren’t to respond, but only to say “thank you” when the other was finished.

I was amazed at how much I felt I could learn about a person just from hearing what upsets them, what they like, what they believe in and care about. Often in organizations doing non-profit and movement work, we don’t get a chance to have these conversations. Self-care ends up being our second-to-last priority. Shonettia’s calm but assertive presence, excellent posture, and soothing voice made us feel comfortable, and to me it seemed like not only were we working on ourselves as individuals, but we were also building a sort of unity and collective identity. It was inspirational and renewing.

[post by Shira]

Helen Thomas to Keynote AAAN Fundraiser

Save the date! December 12 the venerable Helen Thomas, Arab American Dean of the White House Press Corps, to keynote the AAAN’s 15th anniversary fund raiser.

Stay tuned for ticket information, coming soon!

Check out our latest newsletter!

Check out our August newsletter and learn about our youth organizing program!

AAAN’s domestic violence report on WBEZ’s 848

AAAN board member Louise Cainkar discusses report she co-authored on domestic violence prevention and intervention in the Arab and Muslim community on WBEZ’s 848.

Listen to the 8-minute segment from Tuesday, August 17 here.