Margaret Burroughs

Against the Current, No. 152, May/June 2011

Brian Dolinar

Magnificent black women
the poets and singers have been remiss
have sung too few poems and songs of you
And the image makers have not recorded your beauty.

MARGARET BURROUGHS, LONGTIME Chicago artist and activist, died on November 21, 2010 at age 93. Producing poetry, block prints, paintings, sculptures, and participating in theater, she was a modern day renaissance woman. She leaves behind two major institutions — the Du Sable Museum and the South Side Community Art Center — that are her legacy to a life dedicated to promoting African-American art and culture.

In 1917, Margaret Taylor was born in St. Rose, Louisiana not far from New Orleans. In her autobiography Life With Margaret (2003), she tells how her family left the South after the Ku Klux Klan visited their house one night. They moved to Chicago where there were “no lynchings.” Her parents wanted to find out if “the democracy promised by America existed, somewhere.”

After graduating from Englewood High School, she earned a teacher’s certificate. She went on to become an art teacher at Du Sable High School, in the heart of Chicago’s South Side, for more than 20 years. While teaching art, she was also making it. She found that there were virtually no opportunities for black artists to exhibit their work in the Chicago galleries. It was the Depression and few could afford to take classes at the Art Institute.

She helped to found the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC) as a place where aspiring artists could attend art classes and show their work. With backing from the Federal Arts Project, one of Roosevelt’s innovative New Deal programs, it was among more than 100 similar art centers across the country dedicated to taking “art to the people.”

The organizing committee purchased an old mansion at 3831 Michigan Avenue built by baseball magnate Charles Comiskey. The ground floor was turned into a gallery, the rooms on the second floor were used for workshops, and the top floor was a performance space. When the art center was officially opened in 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was at the dedication ceremony. Crowds of people filled the street for two blocks to witness the event.

The SSCAC became a meeting place for artists in the period now known as the “Chicago Renaissance,” a literary and artistic awakening that occurred a decade after the “New Negro” movement in Harlem. Burroughs was part of a group of artists that also included Charles White, Archibald Motley, Charles Sebree, Elizabeth Catlett, Marion Perkins, and George Neal.

She was married for a short time to Bernard Goss, fellow artist and co-founder of the SSCAC. She later remarried, to her life-long partner Charles Burroughs, an artist in his own right, who had grown up in the Soviet Union.

Also an activist, Burroughs was in the local branches of the NAACP Youth Council and Carter G. Woodson’s Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. She associated with both liberals and leftists. In the 1930s, she participated in rallies for the Scottsboro Boys, part of a campaign fought by the Communist Party to free nine Black youth accused of raping two white women in Alabama.

During the McCarthy era, she did not back down. When she was questioned by the Board of Education about the “Communist sympathizer” Paul Robeson, her teaching job was at stake, yet she still openly expressed admiration for her good friend.

In 1958, she fought to bring W.E.B. Du Bois, who had also been called a “red,” to Chicago. She was art editor of Freedomways, a journal started by several Black radicals who had survived McCarthyism.

A lengthy FBI file was kept on Burroughs. Although she believed in changing the system, what she called a “racist capitalist society,” she denied ever being a Communist. She was perhaps concerned with protecting the institutions she had founded and the friends she worked with.

Burroughs is perhaps best known for her role in establishing the Du Sable Museum, located at 57th and Cottage Grove in Washington Park. Named after the Black founder of Chicago, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, it is a must visit for anyone interested in African-American history. The museum draws from its collection of 15,000 pieces and also hosts travelling exhibits. In the summer, there are jazz performances and films held in the park.

Throughout her life, Burroughs was a champion of art. In her later years, she went into Illinois prisons to teach creative writing classes. She continued to mentor young artists. “When you don’t keep moving, you die,” she said. At age 90, she visited Venezuela to witness first-hand the “Bolivarian revolution” of Hugo Chavez.

After she passed away, President Barack Obama said that Burroughs was “widely admired for her contributions to American culture as an esteemed artist, historian, educator, and mentor.”

ATC 152, May-June 2011