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Margaret Taylor Burroughs is perhaps best remembered for her seminal role in preserving and promoting the legacy of African American contributions to art, culture, and history through her establishment of the DuSable Museum of African American History and the South Side Community Art Center. Both institutions are located in Chicago, Illinois, where Burroughs spent the majority of her life. However, Burroughs—who was born in Saint Rose, Louisiana—was also a successful artist, poet, political activist, and educator whose influence cannot be underestimated.

The future artist’s creative instincts were encouraged by her parents who, when Margaret was only five, moved their family from Louisiana to Chicago, joining an uncle who had relocated there as part of the Great Migration. Burroughs attended the Chicago Teachers College and ultimately earned bachelor’s (1946) and master’s (1948) degrees in art education from the Art Institute of Chicago. From the outset of her career, Burroughs was especially committed to her community in Chicago’s South Side, where she taught the arts and humanities to underserved populations at both the high school and college levels for over thirty years.

As a young adult, Burroughs moved in artistic circles that included emerging African American luminaries like poets Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks (her high school classmate), sculptor Augusta Savage, and painter Eldzier Cortor. These friends congregated in Burroughs’s home as she laid the groundwork for the community organizing that would become her life’s focus. In 1940, Burroughs—working in conjunction with the Works Progress Administration—helped establish the South Side Community Art Center in the Bronzeville neighborhood; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt delivered the center’s dedication speech the following spring. A multi-purpose art gallery, school, and workshop still in operation today, the center was a welcome haven venue for black artists seeking additional instruction, studio space, exhibition opportunities, and potential patrons. Burroughs’s goal was two-fold: to offer much-needed support to working artists and instill a sense of pride and respect for the value of art in her community. Several prominent artists lectured, exhibited, taught, and attended classes at the SSCAC, including painters and printmakers Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, photographer Gordon Parks, and Burroughs herself. A decade later, Burroughs was also instrumental in the organization of the Lake Meadows Art Fair, an ongoing annual event that brings together African American artists.

As the civil rights movement intensified throughout the country, Burroughs—in partnership with her husband, the poet Charles Burroughs—co-founded the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art in 1961. What started as a collection of objects housed on the first floor of the couple’s home grew to become a Smithsonian-affiliated institution and official Chicago landmark. Now known as the DuSable Museum of African American History, it presently occupies several buildings in the Washington Park area of Chicago. As the museum’s executive director from its genesis until her retirement in 1985, Burroughs archived and publicized the contributions of black Americans. When asked years later about the origins of her interest in African American history, Burroughs responded: “I just couldn’t see myself standing in front of a group of eager-eyed young black people and not being able to tell them something very positive about themselves. . . . So I began to dig out information about our people and share it.” Her support of African American artists extended far beyond Chicago. For instance, when painter Loïs Mailou Jones was given a retrospective exhibition in Haiti, Burroughs traveled with a group of fifteen from Chicago to Port-au-Prince to show encouragement for Jones at the opening reception.

All along, Burroughs created an impressive body of work as both a visual artist and a writer. She explored various media, including sculpture and painting, but was most prolific as a printmaker. Drawn to themes of family, community, and history, Burroughs crafted striking works on paper—usually linoleum block prints—that depict both traditional African and African American figures, as well as genre scenes illustrating South Side activities. Though primarily concerned with the black experience, she did not restrict herself to that single subject and instead depicted universal scenes that sometimes depicted subjects’ faces as half black and half white. “I wish my art to speak not only for my people, but for all humanity,” Burroughs vowed. Her experience as a children’s book author—including her poetry collection, What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?—also impacted her thematic choices. Hop Scotch, a 1991 linocut featuring girls from varying ethnic backgrounds in intricately patterned shirt-and-skirt ensembles, is typical of Burroughs’ style.

Margaret Burroughs’s achievements were recognized with high honors. The recipient of several honorary doctorates, she was awarded a President’s Humanitarian Award by Gerald Ford in 1975 and was appointed to the National Commission on African American History and Culture by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Upon her death in 2010, President Barack Obama spoke of his admiration for her “contributions to American culture as an esteemed artist, historian, educator, and mentor.” Works by Margaret Burroughs can be found in major museum collections across the United States, including the National Gallery of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago.