Nation Mourns Museum Founder: Legacy of Dr. Margaret Burroughs Lives on at DuSable Museum

By J. Coyden Palmer, Special to the NNPA from The Chicago Crusader –

As word spread about the death of national and international Black historian Dr. Margaret Goss Burroughs condolences poured in from the White House and throughout Chicago. Extolling Dr. Burroughs as one “who was widely admired for her contributions to American culture as an esteemed artist, historian, educator and mentor, President Barack Obama said “Dr. Burroughs’ legacy will continue throughout the world.” Dr. Burroughs, who co-founded Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History with her late husband Charles Gordon Burroughs in the living room of their home in 1961, continued to serve as director emeritus of the museum until her death. She died at her Chicago home with her family at her bedside. Dr. Burroughs was 95.

President Obama also lauded Dr. Burroughs as one “who was also admired for her generosity and commitment to underserved communities through her children’s books, art workshops and community centers that both inspired and educated young people about African-American culture.”

“Michelle and I are saddened by the passing of Dr. Margaret Burroughs. Her legacy will live on in Chicago and around the world,” President Obama said.

Dr. Burroughs, poet, visual artist, educator, and arts organizer was born on November 1, 1915. She attended school in Chicago, including Chicago Teachers College and received a Bachelor’s Degree (1944) and a Master’s (1948) of Fine Arts from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mayor Richard M. Daley joined a host of others who sent their condolences to Dr. Burroughs’ family, stating “the city has truly lost one of its iconic figures in the art world.” Daley said the loss of one of the city’s most prominent members who can never be replaced will be balanced out by the thousands she helped personally and millions she influenced around the world. “Chicago is a better place because of Dr. Margaret Burroughs,” Daley said. “Through her artistic talent and wide breadth of knowledge, she gave us a cultural gem, the DuSable Museum of African American History. But, she herself was a cultural institution. She spent a lifetime instilling a love of arts and culture in people young and old. She will be deeply missed.” U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Il, called Dr. Burroughs “a keeper of history. With her passing she attains the distinction as ancestor and leaves behind a formidable imprint of struggle, triumph and hope,” Rush added.

“Dr. Burroughs was a historian for a lost and often disregarded people, and a champion for those whose voices often go unheard,” Rush said. “Over the years I have appropriated nearly a million dollars to the DuSable institution because it is just that important—it is an important landmark in American history.” U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Il, added that (Dr.) Burroughs was not a typical artist. He said her works were all socially responsible and forced people to question their own values and attitudes about the African Diaspora.

“She was an artist with a conscience, equally committed to her creative work and her social activism,” Jackson added. “Dr. Burroughs was deeply committed to everything she did. When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the president of Liberia and the first woman head of state of an African country, visited Chicago and spoke at the DuSable Museum, Dr. Burroughs prepared a special presentation of one of her paintings. But, Dr. Burroughs was not there to present it herself because the event occurred on the day she had set-aside each week to spend with people who had been incarcerated. Even on such a special day, Dr. Burroughs would not step away from the important work that she did.” In 1985, Dr. Burroughs was appointed by Mayor Harold Washington as a Commissioner of the Chicago Park District. She also founded the South Side Community Arts Center, a community organization that has served as a gallery and workshop studio for artists and students for 70 years. Although Burroughs has worked in sculpture, painting, and many other art forms throughout her career, she is best known for her work as a printmaker.

Burroughs believed establishing the DuSable Museum would be her legacy. “Every individual wants to leave a legacy; to be remembered for something positive they have done for the community,” said Burroughs. “Long after I’m dead and gone the DuSable Museum will still be here. “ A lot of Black museums have opened up, but we’re the only one that grew out of the indigenous Black community. We weren’t started by anybody downtown. We were started by ordinary folks.” She said the museum gives young African Americans a chance to see themselves in a different light than what many have been taught. “A museum shows children they can be somebody,” Burroughs once stated. By emphasizing the cultural and racial roots of Black people, Burroughs hoped to teach young people that not only could they be somebody but that they came from a proud and strong Black heritage.

Burroughs said the DuSable Museum is different from any other African American museum in the country because it started and grew from within the community. Attorney Cheryl Blackwell Bryson, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees stated, “Dr. Burroughs was a true renaissance woman, a visionary and a role model for all. She was a prime example of someone who lived ‘The Golden Rule,’ you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” One of Dr. Burroughs’ former students spoke of what it was like to be a student of an icon. Howard Brookins Sr., father of Ald. Howard Brookins Jr. said Dr. Burroughs was his division and art teacher at DuSable High School. He described Burroughs as an attractive woman whom all the school boys loved. He remembers Burroughs as one of the first women he had seen wearing an Afro and said she was a visionary.

“Dr. Burroughs gave her all to her students and she encouraged us all to achieve through school and she followed us and remained as counsel to us as we went into our respective professional careers,” Brookins said. “I will miss her but never forget the memories we shared and all the physical gifts she gave me, and we must continue her legacy of leadership in providing support for the sustaining and growth of The DuSable Museum as well as institutionalizing her leadership and public service training to a new generation for generations to come.”

Dorothy R. Leavell, publisher of the Crusader Newspapers – Chicago and Gary, said that Dr. Burroughs had a long and rich relationship with the Crusader Newspapers. It was in the late 1950’s and 1960’s that she and her first husband, Bernard Goss curated an “Exposition of the Negro in Business and Culture” featuring some 150 paintings of distinguished and historically significant Blacks and dioramas depicting the rise of Blacks in America from their native Africa, under the leadership of the late Balm L. Leavell, Jr., founder of the Exposition and newspapers. The paintings were a part of Chicago’s Sesquicentennial in 1976 and displayed at The Daley Center, among other venues in the city. The collection is now housed at the DuSable Museum of African American History, donated by now publisher Dorothy R. Leavell. “Someone of Margaret’s dedication, foresight and tenacity comes along once in a lifetime. Her legacy shall be forever preserved in the institutions she founded,” Leavell concluded.

Highlights of Dr. Burroughs career include: Director and Founder, DuSable Museum of African American history, 1961-1984; Art Teacher, DuSable High School, 1946-1969; Professor of African American Art and Culture, Elmhurst College, 1968; and Professor of Humanities, Kennedy King College, 1969-1979. Dr. Burroughs has also made a distinctive contribution as a poet and as an editor of poets. The majority of her poems are published in the volume What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black? (1968) and Africa, My Africa (1970).

At the request of Dr. Burroughs there will be no funeral services. Instead there will be a public memorial at a later date.