Burroughs, Margaret Taylor 1917–
Artist, educator, writer, museum founder
“Every individual wants to leave a legacy; to be remembered for something positive they have done for their community,” said Margaret Taylor Burroughs in Ebony. “Long after I’m dead and gone, the [DuSable] museum will still be here.” Artist and educator turned community activist, Burroughs was one of the founders of the Ebony Museum of African American History in 1961. “A lot of black museums have opened up,” stated Burroughs in Black Enterprise, “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.” Burroughs and her husband, Charles Gordon Burroughs, opened their home to the fledgling museum that was a result of the group’s efforts. Both of them realized that if they wanted an institution for preserving and displaying black heritage they would have to create it themselves.
In 1968, the museum’s name changed to DuSable in honor of Jean Baptist Pointe DuSable, a man of African ancestry, who, in the 1770s, became the first permanent settler in what would become Chicago. One of the museum’s founders suggested the name change because the City of Chicago had never properly recognized DuSable as the father of Chicago. The name change proved to be a shrewd economic move by the museum; funding from the city for the museum soon arrived. In Black Enterprise Audrey Edwards stated, “An institution named after the father of Chicago, the thinking went, would force the city to either aid the museum ‘or always be embarrassed’ if it didn’t.” In 1973, the museum moved to its permanent location in Washington Park on Chicago’s South Side when the city turned over the vacant former administration building to the museum.
Margaret Taylor was born November 1, 1917, in the small community of St. Rose outside New Orleans to Alexander Taylor, a farmer, and his wife Octavia, a domestic laborer. After World War I, the Taylor family joined others in migrating from the South to urban areas in the North. Looking for better job opportunities, Alexander Taylor moved his family to Chicago where he found work in a railroad roundhouse and Octavia found work as a domestic laborer. In Chicago, young Margaret found educational opportunities that would have been unavailable to her in the South. She graduated from Englewood High School in 1933, and then earned a teaching certificate from Chicago Normal College in 1937. In 1939, Taylor received an upper-grade art certificate from the college, which had been renamed Chicago Teachers College before becoming Chicago State University.
Born Margaret Taylor, November 1, 1917, in St. Rose, LA; daughter of Alexander and Octavia (Pierre) Taylor; married Bernard Goss, 1939 (divorced, 1947); married Charles Gordon Burroughs (a museum curator), December 23, 1949; children: (first marriage) Gayle Goss Toller; (second marriage; adopted) Paul. Education: Chicago Normal College, teaching certificate, 1937; Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State University), upper-grade art certificate, 1939; Art Institute of Chicago, B.F.A., 1946, M.F.A., 1948. Attended Teachers College of Columbia University, graduate study, summers, 1958–60; Esmerelda Art School, Mexico City, 1952–53.
DuSable Museum of African American History, director and founder, 1961–84, director emeritus, 1984—. DuSable High School, Chicago, art teacher, 1946–69; Chicago Institute of Art, assistant professor of African American art history, 1968; professor of African american art and culture, Elmhurst College, 1968, Barat College, 1969; Kennedy-King Community College, Chicago, professor of humanities, 1969–79. Founder and director, The Burroughs Group, 1985—.
Exhibitions of artwork include American Negro Exhibition, Chicago, 1940; Atlanta Negro Art Exhibition, 1947, 1955; San Francisco Civic Museum, 1949; Leipzig, East Germany, 1965; Friendship House, Moscow, USSR, 1967; Evans-Tibbs Collection, Washington, DC, 1982; Nicole Gallery, Chicago, 1986; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1988.
Selected Awards: Young Women’s Christian Association leadership award, 1973, for excellence in art; Excellence in Art Award, National Association of Negro Museums, 1982; Progressive Black Woman’s Award, Enverite Charity Club, 1988; Woman’s Caucus for Art Award, Houston Museum of Fine Art, 1988.
Member: Chicago South Side Community Art Center, National Conference of Negro Artists, Chicago Council on Fine Arts, National Commission on Negro History and Culture.
Addresses: Office —DuSable Museum, 740 East 56th Pl., Chicago, IL 60657.
After marrying Bernard Goss in 1939, Margaret spent time creating her own artwork in sculpture, oils, acrylics, and batik while teaching elementary school. After the birth of her daughter, Gayle, she continued her education. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 1946, and a master’s degree in 1948, in art education from the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1946, she began a teaching career with DuSable High School that would last 23 years. Her determination to take advantage of all the opportunities unavailable to her parents propelled her to develop fully as an artist and an educator. Her belief in the need for each person to reach his or her potential shaped the approach she took with her students.
Eventually her artistic pursuits expanded to include writing, especially poetry. In 1947, several definitive events took place in Margaret’s life. She and Bernard Goss divorced; one of her prints on exhibit at Atlanta University was awarded an honorable mention; and she published her first book, Jespar, the Drummin’ Boy. Published under her family name of Taylor, the children’s book was written and illustrated by Margaret.
On December 23, 1949, Margaret married Charles Gordon Burroughs. She spent much of the next decade pursing her artwork, teaching, and continuing her education. She went to Mexico City in 1953, to study at the Institute of Painting and Sculpture. In the late 1950s she attended summer graduate courses at the Teachers College of Columbia University. Then in 1956, she compiled a children’s book entitled Did You Feed My Cow?: Rhymes and Games From City Streets and Country Lanes as a way to preserve childhood rhymes and games for future generations.
Burroughs, however, had a vision of doing more to preserve black heritage. With her husband, Burroughs converted the ground floor of their old Chicago mansion into a small museum in which they could display a variety of artifacts. More than 500 people toured the museum during its first year. Heartened by the public’s interest, Burroughs devoted herself to raising funds for the museum. She firmly believed that this museum would enrich lives, especially those of young black people. “A museum …shows kids they can be somebody,” Burroughs stated in Black Enterprise.
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. Besides serving as a repository for black art, papers, artifacts, and memorabilia, the museum also met the needs of its visitors with youth activities, essay contests, art festivals, and poetry festivals. By 1970, museum attendance was more than 30,000 annually.
Based on her experiences as a teacher, Burroughs knew that traditional textbooks excluded most of the contributions black people had made to the growth of the United States and completely ignored the rich cultural past from Africa that was the birthright of every black person. Burroughs believed that these biased and sometimes racist textbooks gave young black people an inaccurate picture of who they were; furthermore, she believed that these textbooks were detrimental to the vulnerable self-esteem of young people. A museum devoted to black culture and history, Burroughs ascertained, would help fight the damage being done to young blacks’ self-esteem.
From its humble beginnings in three rooms of the Burroughs home, the DuSable museum has grown into a building of more than 60,000 square feet; it houses African and Afro-American art, manuscripts, personal papers, and more than 10,000 books related to African and Afro-American history and culture. In 1991 ground was broken for the Harold Washington Wing, which added another 25,000 square feet and included a sculpture garden, several galleries, an enlarged auditorium, and an expanded gift shop. In a 1980 Black Enterprise piece, Burroughs related, “In the beginning we worked as volunteers because we didn’t have any money…. But now we have a staff of 21 and a payroll of $90,000.”
The DuSable Museum, which includes more than 50,000 items, boasts a collection of books by the influential writer Langston Hughes; the academic robe worn by protest leader W. E. B. Du Bois when he received an honorary degree in Ghana; a jacket worn by Paul Robeson, outspoken civil rights activist, actor, and singer in the U.S.O. while entertaining black troops; and the boxing gloves used by boxing great Joe Louis when he won the Golden Glove championship. “We try to get personal items like these because they mean a lot more to the children,” stated Burroughs in Black Enterprise.
The museum not only chronicles past glories, it is also the site for the annual Negro History Quiz Down in which teams of seventh- and eighth-grade students from across the city compete each January. Museum services have grown to include tours, films, lectures, writer’s seminars, poetry festivals, and research programs. More than 100,000 people annually visit the museum, which is part of an eight-member museum consortium that includes the Field Museum, the Adler Planetarium, and the Mexican Fine Arts Museum.
The 1960s were a time of activism, especially for the civil rights movement, and Burroughs found poetry to be yet another medium in which she could express herself and share African American culture. Her poem “Brother Freedom” appeared in an anthology she edited with Dudley Randall entitled For Malcolm X: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X. A unique book for its time, every poem in the anthology focused on a single black man, Malcolm X, who was a hero among his people. Of the 43 poets included in the book, some such as Gwendolyn Brooks and LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) were well known; others were not. In her poem, Burroughs used the Christian imagery of Jesus, whose message, like Malcolm X’s, threatened the established system. Her poem also paid homage to Malcolm X’s Muslim faith and the traditions of Islam. Burroughs held Malcolm X up as a freedom fighter who played a prominent role in carrying on the proud heritage of blacks.
Burroughs published her first volume of poetry, What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?, in 1968. Burroughs drew on her parents’ experience of migrating from the South to the North when writing the poems that appear in the volume. Her father, although then employed by the railroad, never forgot his roots as a rural southern farmer. Her mother, a domestic laborer in the South, had simply traded one house for another by becoming a domestic laborer in the North. Burroughs parents, like others of their generation who made the move, did not find life in the North substantially better than that in the South. Life was better, however, for their children who found opportunities, especially educational ones, that would have been unavailable to them in the South.
“The prose and poetry of this book,” wrote poet Haki Madhubuti in the introduction to What Shall I Tell, “beautiful black words and images, is contagious and if read seriously will infect the reader with a black disease: black pride…. Burroughs paints beautiful black pictures with the same alphabet that is so often used against black people.” Influenced by her visits to Europe and the Soviet Union in 1965 and 1966, Burroughs developed a personal philosophy of bettering life not only for black people, but for all humankind. Her philosophy of fighting the oppression of all people guides her poetry in What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?
During 1968, Burroughs was involved in a variety of activities that helped shape her as a poet. She taught African and African American art history at the Chicago Institute of Art while also taking part in an internship—supported by a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities—at the Field Museum in Chicago. That year the American Forum for International Study awarded Burroughs a travel grant to Africa. Although she stayed primarily in Ghana, she did visit other West African countries.
One year later Burroughs returned to Ghana to attend the American Forum of International Study program at the University of Ghana. These trips to Africa provided the inspiration for Africa, My Africa, Burroughs’ second volume of poetry. Charles Gordon Burroughs, the poet’s husband, wrote in the book’s foreword that Burroughs “tells us about Africa with love and concern for people and humanity without claiming to grasp and understand the blackness of our ancestral home.”
Burroughs believes the poet to be an essential force in changing the world. In The Forerunners: Black Poets in America, a book that acknowledges the contributions made by earlier black poets to contemporary black poets, Burroughs wrote, “Black poets … have played their significant roles by using their pens as their weapons…. If you would … thwart progressive change, silence the poets, for if left to their own devices they will prepare the ground for and help to usher in the new order.”
Indeed, Burroughs has spent her life preserving black culture for all people but particularly for children through her art and her devotion to the DuSable Museum. In 1984, Burroughs became director emeritus of the DuSable Museum. She then created the Burroughs Group, an agency that provides consultation and support services to the art community. She has fostered an appreciation of African heritage in those whose lives she has touched. Testified Audrey Edwards in Black Enterprise, “Dr. Margaret Burroughs knows that children need heroes, role models, and elders who set examples and give definition to history.”
(Under name Margaret Taylor) Jasper, the Drummin’ Boy (self-illustrated), Viking, 1947, revised edition under name Margaret Taylor Burroughs, illustrated by Ted Lewin, Follett, 1970.
(Compiler, under name Margaret Taylor) Did You Feed My Cow?: Rhymes and Games From City Streets and Country Lanes, illustrated by Paul Galdone, Crowell, 1956, revised edition under name Margaret Taylor Burroughs, illustrated by Joe E. De Valasco, Follett, 1969.
(Contributor, under name Margaret Taylor) Celebrating Negro History and Brotherhood: A Folio of Prints by Chicago Artists, Seven Arts Workshop, 1956.
Whip Me Whop Me Pudding and Other Stories of Riley Rabbit and His Fabulous Friends, Praga Press, 1966.
(Editor, under name Margaret G. Burroughs, with Dudley Randall) For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and the Death of Malcolm X, preface and eulogy by Ossie Davis, Broadside Press, 1967, second edition under name Margaret Taylor Burroughs, 1969.
What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?, M.A.A.H. Press, 1968.
Africa, My Africa, DuSable Museum, 1970.
What Shall I Tell My Children: An Addenda With a Letter From Ruwa Chiri, DuSable Museum, 1973.
(Contributor) Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746–1980, edited by Erlene Stetson, Indiana University Press, 1981.
(Contributor) The Forerunners: Black Poets in America, edited by Woodie King, Jr., Howard University Press, 1981.
American Visions, October 1991, p. 12.
Black Enterprise, May 1980, p. 33.
Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1993, sec. 8, p. 11.
Ebony, February 1993, p. 52.
—Debra G. Harroun
Burroughs, Margaret Taylor
Burroughs, Margaret Taylor
November 1, 1917
The daughter of Octavia Pierre Taylor and Alexander Taylor, artist, educator, and museum director Margaret Burroughs was born in St. Rose Parish, Louisiana. In 1920, in search of better lives, her parents migrated to Chicago, where Burroughs made significant, lasting contributions to her community and beyond.
In 1946 she earned her bachelor's degree in art education at the Art Institute of Chicago and began teaching at DuSable High School in Chicago. A committed, impassioned teacher of art, she held this job for twenty-two years until retiring in 1968 to oversee the development of the DuSable Museum of African American History. The museum—which she originally founded as the Ebony Museum of Negro History with her second husband, Charles Gordon Burroughs, in their home on Michigan Avenue—today occupies more than sixty thousand square feet in Washington Park on the south side of Chicago. Managed by Burroughs and a staff of twenty-one, it contains more than fifty thousand items, including art, books, papers, artifacts, and memorabilia.
Since the 1940s Burroughs's art has been displayed in galleries and exhibitions in the United States and abroad. In 1952 and 1953 she was given a one-woman show in Mexico City, where she lived and studied for that year. Influenced by the "new realism" movement of the 1930s and inspired by the works of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, Burroughs sought to fuse art with politics, thereby using it as a vehicle for deeper social awareness and, ultimately, social change. This purpose has remained with her throughout her long career as both a visual artist and, later, a poet. She has described her central mission as "the betterment of life for all mankind and especially my people."
Burroughs's sculpture is the product of a "subtractive" style, by which the artist carves the image from large blocks of marble or stone rather than shaping or molding a cast. Her works are characterized by bold, heavy lines that straddle the boundary between realism and abstraction. Certain Burroughs sculptures, for example, portray the heads of African-American women in a manner reminiscent of African and ancient Egyptian art. Her poetry, which draws on folk traditions and contemporary events and focuses on the African and African-American experiences, is written in similarly "broad" strokes of simple, direct language. She is the author of Jasper, the Drummin' Boy (1947); Did You Feed My Cow?: Rhymes and Tales from City Streets and Country Lanes (1955; revised, 1969); What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black? (1968); and Africa, My Africa (1970).
In 1980 Burroughs was one of the ten black artists honored by President Jimmy Carter at the White House; in 1982 she received an Excellence in Art award from the National Association of Negro Museums; and in 1986 Mayor Harold Washington proclaimed February 1 as "Dr. Margaret Burroughs Day in Chicago." She has received a vast number of other awards, citations, and honorary degrees. Still dedicated to guarding and enriching the African-American tradition, Burroughs, now director emerita of the DuSable Museum, lives in Chicago.
Bontemps, Arna Alexander, ed. Forever Free: Art by African American Women 1862–1980. Alexandria, Va.: Stephenson, 1980.
nancy yousef (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005