Talk with the many fans of Margaret Burroughs and the phrase “institution builder” is mentioned over and over.
Two of Chicago’s black cultural institutions — the 70-year-old South Side Community Art Center and the nearly 50-year-old DuSable Museum of African American History — can thank her for their existence.
(John H. White/Sun-Times)
DuSable Museum’s Margaret Burroughs (Click this link and then the link under this picture in the Sun Times site to see a photo gallery)
But there also is a human side to her accomplishments — the generations of children who have benefited from her work. She dedicated her life to serving her community, and when she felt African-American children weren’t being taught about their background, she went to work.
“Instead of complaining, she did something about it,” said Faheem Majeed, executive director of the South Side Community Art Center. “She felt art and history should be accessible to the masses.”
Mrs. Burroughs, an artist, poet and educator, died early Sunday morning surrounded by her family. She was 95.
The influence of Mrs. Burroughs’ legacy, a distinctive contribution to black culture, reaches across the spectrum, from schoolchildren to presidents.
“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 Obama said in a statement. “She was 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.”
Mrs. Burroughs was born in St. Rose, La. She moved north to Chicago with her family.
Mrs. Burroughs had a lifelong passion for learning. She attended Englewood High School and went on to Chicago Normal College, Chicago Teachers College and the School of the Art Institute.
She married her first husband, Bernard Goss, in 1939 (they later divorced), and had a daughter, Gayle.
In the 1940s, while teaching elementary school, she began to work more intently on her own artwork.
She worked in sculpture and painting but ultimately she became best known for her skill as a printmaker. Her linoleum block prints feature stunning images relevant to African-American history and culture.
For more than 20 years, until the late ’60s, Mrs. Burroughs taught art at Du Sable High School in Bronzeville, and from 1969-79 she was a professor of humanities at Kennedy-King College.
While teaching and using textbooks that ignored black history, she began to see the need for institutions that told the African-American story in words and art.
In the 1940s, Mrs. Burroughs helped co-found the South Side Community Art Center, an organization that continues to assist in the development of emerging and established artists.
The DuSable Museum got its start in 1961, when Mrs. Burroughs and her second husband, Charles, founded it on the first floor of their home on South Michigan.
Originally called the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art, it was relocated in 1971 to Washington Park and renamed for Haitian trader Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, Chicago’s first permanent settler.
“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 Cheryl Blackwell Bryson, chairman of the DuSable board of trustees. “To the end, she was sharp, passionate and a critical thinker.”
She had served as a commissioner for the Chicago Park District since 1986.
“Chicago is a better place because of Dr. Burroughs,” Mayor Daley said in a statement. “Through her artistic talent and wide breadth of knowledge, she gave us a cultural gem. But she herself was a cultural institution. She spent a lifetime instilling a love of arts and culture in people young and old.”
U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. said Mrs. Burroughs was “an artist with a conscience.”
Mrs. Burroughs was the author of children’s books and volumes of poetry that spoke to the African-American experience, including What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black? and Africa, My Africa.
Mrs. Burroughs also served as mentor to many young artists. Sculptor Doug Williams was a student at the School of the Art Institute where he says she “guided me through the art world.”
“She was a lady, a teacher, a confidant, an idol and an artist,” he said. “Even today, when I needed professional advice I would go to her.”
Mrs. Burroughs received many awards and honors, the latest of which was the Legends and Legacy Award from the Art Institute of Chicago for her contributions to the worlds of art, education and history.
“She constantly encouraged people to focus on what their legacy would be,” said Lester McCarroll Jr., co-chair of the event. “She enjoyed life but also knew her time here was important.”
Mrs. Burroughs is survived by her son, Paul; four grandsons, Eric Toller, Matthew Toller, Manaseh Wade and Jonathan Hutchinson, and three nieces, Nina Jones, Lyneth Nesbith and Caroline Harris.
At Mrs. Burroughs’ request, there will be no funeral service. A public memorial will be held after the holidays.
Additional information and graphics showing prints by Margaret Burroughs, click here.