As an artist, poet, and teacher, Margaret Burroughs wore many hats to make her creative mark on the world. But as a Chicagoan, Burroughs left a lasting legacy that can still be found in the city today.
Born in 1915 in Louisiana, Margaret Burroughs moved with her family to Chicago in 1920 as part of the Great Migration – a decades-long movement of Black families from the South to northern and western cities. According to the biography on her website, Burroughs attended Englewood High School, where she was classmates with the influential poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
Burroughs went on to get her teaching certificate in 1937, and two years later, she helped found the South Side Community Arts Center (SSCAC). The center started as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). One of the projects within the WPA promoted arts and culture by paying artists, musicians, writers, and other creatives, including a group of Black artists working in Chicago – and Burroughs was among them.
“We had no place to exhibit, so some of us got together and we decided what we would do was try to get a place,” Burroughs told WTTW in 2010 as part of the documentary DuSable to Obama: Chicago’s Black Metropolis. “We decided that we needed to get the money to buy the building, so I and quite a few of the other young artists … we got collection cans.”
After fundraising, sometimes just dimes at a time, Burroughs and other Black artists in Chicago were able to purchase a mansion at 3821 South Michigan Avenue. Eleanor Roosevelt spoke at the dedication of the building in 1941. According to the SSCAC, the center is the “only African American Art Center of its kind opened under the WPA Initiative to remain continuously open.”
Burroughs also dedicated her life to education, both of herself and others. She obtained a degree in Art Education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1946, and two years later she got a Master’s there, too. She taught at DuSable High School in Bronzeville from 1946 until 1969, when she became a professor of humanities at Kennedy-King College in Englewood. Another one of Burroughs’ many hats? Mayor Harold Washington appointed her to serve as the Chicago Park District commissioner in 1985, a position she held until 2010.
While she was working as a teacher, artist, and poet, Burroughs and her husband Charles founded what would ultimately become the DuSable Museum of African American History. Initially called the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art, the museum was founded in Burroughs’ own living room in 1961 to study and preserve Black culture that was often ignored by other museums.
In 1968, the museum was renamed to honor Jean Baptise Point du Sable, a Black man who was the first permanent, non-native settler of Chicago. In 1973, the museum moved into a vacant park administration building in Washington Park, where it has been ever since. Today, it is the oldest African American history and culture museum in the United States.
Beyond her role in establishing cultural institutions in Chicago, Burroughs was first an artist and a poet, who often exhibited at the SSCAC that she helped found. According to the Poetry Foundation, Burroughs created both sculptures and paintings. She is mostly known for her work as a printmaker using linoleum block prints, creating images of both famous and everyday Black individuals. Some of her art is held by the Art Institute.
As a poet, one of her most well known works is “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black.” Written in 1963, the poem is written from the perspective of a Black mother expressing her fears of raising her children in a white world. Burroughs also penned “Chicago, I Love You!” – an ode to the city that celebrates both its gems and its imperfections. (Watch Burroughs read an excerpt from that poem above.) As with so much of her life and work, she gave her poetry to Chicago and its people, donating her drafts to the Chicago Public Library’s lauded Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature.
Burroughs died in 2010, but the institutions she created are still important landmarks on Chicago’s South Side – literally. SSCAC became an official Chicago historic landmark in 1994, and Burroughs’ home at 3806 South Michigan Avenue – the first home for the DuSable Museum – is also a Chicago historic landmark.