Margaret Burroughs –– co-founder of the DuSable Museum of African-American History, South Side Community Art Center and Lake Meadows Art Fair –– died Sunday in Chicago. She was 95.
The St. Rose, Louisiana native came to Chicago with her parents when she was 5 years old. She studied teaching and art at Chicago State University and the Art Institute of Illinois. She also attended Columbia University in New York and the Institute of Painting and Sculpture in Mexico City in Mexico. Years later, Lewis University in Illinois gave her an honorary doctorate.
In a February 2010 interview with the Defender, Burroughs credited her success and “easier” travels throughout the years to those you built the “bridges” for her to cross over.
Mary McLeod Bethune, Bessie Coleman, Frederick Douglas, Langston Hughes, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Paul Robeson, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells, among others paved the way, she said.
Burroughs mission has always been to leave a legacy for those who’ve come after her to follow.
“They made a contribution to our people. Everybody should try to leave a legacy to help our people. Instead of just giving your life to make money and instead of being remembered by a decaying tombstone standing alone in the cemetery, do something that people will remember you by,” said the South Side resident.
Burroughs, most recently the Chicago Park District Commissioner, taught art for 27 years at DuSable High School and for 10 years at Kennedy-King College.
“Michelle and I are saddened by the passing of Dr. Margaret Burroughs, who was widely admired for her contributions to American culture as an esteemed artist, historian, educator, and mentor,” President Barack Obama said in a statement.
As she continued with her love for art and poetry, she found a way to share her paintings with a larger audience that normally wouldn’t be able to afford her original paintings. She began to reproduce her art into linoleum block prints.
When asked what inspires her work, she quickly said, “anything.”
“It comes at anytime, without notice. When the inspiration comes, I’m always ready to receive it and go from there,” she said.
Burroughs became a leading force in the Black arts community and founded the Lake Meadows Art Fair and the South Side Community Art Center. She made sure her work, but most importantly, those of other Black artists were featured.
“The white community had an art fair in Hyde Park on 57th Street so we decided to have one for ourselves,” said Burroughs, referring to her and her students.
While art was her passion, so was preserving Black heritage.
Burroughs and her high school students were talking one day about how there were Jewish and Polish museums in Chicago, yet, “the major white museums” didn’t include anything about African-Americans.
“We decided that we should start our own. I remembered something that Booker T. Washington told our people. He said to put down your buckets where you are. We were sitting in my living room and we put down our buckets. We started the museum,” said the self-professed student-teacher of the arts.
Inside her home in the 3800 block of South Michigan Avenue, the country’s first museum of Black history was founded in 1961.
Ten years later it moved to its current location, 740 E. 56th Place, and underwent a name change, the DuSable Museum of African-American History. Burroughs said she wanted to pay homage to Chicago’s first permanent resident.
“Service and humanity is what’s important. You should always want to honor and help others, and leave a legacy of something positive you’ve done in your community,” said Burroughs.
A quarter-century after founding the museum, the late Mayor Harold Washington proclaimed Feb. 1, 1986 as “Dr. Margaret Burroughs Day.”
In separate statements, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-1st, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. lauded Burroughs for her service.
“She was a keeper of history, a historian for a lost and often disregarded people, and a champion for those whose voices often go unheard. Dr. Burroughs, a long-time public servant, made sure that so many never made the mistakes of the past. She was a champion and she leaves a formidable imprint of struggle, triumph and hope,” said Rush.
Jackson, who spent the last 35 years with Burroughs and others at the Cook County Jail on Christmas Day, said, “Dr. Burroughs was a pillar of strength and character in our community and was greatly admired by the late Harold Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She supplied a wealth of wisdom and knowledge and was a historical frame of reference.”
Burroughs wrote for the Associated Negro Press – published works include Jasper, the Drummin’ Boy and the anthology Did You Feed My Cow? – and published her first book of poetry in 1968 titled What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?
Throughout the decades, her work has been seen at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the High Museum in Atlanta, the Los Angeles County Museum and in museums in Germany, Mexico, Poland and the Soviet Union. She has also served as chair of the National Conference of Artists.
Burroughs has received the President’s Humanitarian Award, a Presidential appointment to the National Commission on Black History and Culture and the International year of the Woman Award: Catalysts for Change.
She’s received many achievements –– including the Legends and Legacy Award from the Art Institute of Chicago in October ––, broke many strides in her 90-plus years, and taught art throughout the city and within the Illinois Dept. of Corrections.
Burroughs is survived by her son Paul, four grandsons and three nieces. A public memorial is pending.
Copyright 2010 Chicago Defender