The world’s freedom fighter

November 29, 2010

Bill Mullen remembers the life of a towering figure in Chicago and beyond.

MARGARET TAYLOR GOSS BURROUGHS died on November 21 in her Chicago home.

Burroughs was a giant of the Chicago world. She is best known as founder of the DuSable Museum, the first museum of African American history and culture, located in Washington Park. Burroughs taught art at DuSable High School on the South Side for nearly 20 years, was professor of humanities at Kennedy-King College from 1969 to 1979 and served since 1986 on the board of commissioners for the Chicago Park District.

She was a painter, printmaker and graphic designer whose work can be seen in major collections across the country. She was also a writer and poet, especially for children, and the author of What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black and Africa, My Africa.

At her death, mainstream political figures from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to President Barack Obama released statements praising Burroughs's life and work. "Chicago is a better place because of Dr. Burroughs," said Daley. "Through her artistic talent and wide breadth of knowledge, she gave us a cultural gem." Burroughs, said Obama, "was widely admired for her contributions to American culture as an esteemed artist, historian, educator and mentor."

Margaret Burroughs at a conference on creating community spaces
Margaret Burroughs at a conference on creating community spaces

Yet Burroughs's life was more than Chicago and more than cultural mentorship. She was one of the great figures of the 20th century whose life encompassed and embraced a broad spectrum of political thought about how to change the world.

BORN IN Louisiana, she moved to Chicago with her family as a child and attended Englewood High School during the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930s. There, she befriended for life the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks, joined the NAACP youth division and began to examine the social crisis of the depression as it affected African Americans as a group, and members of the dispossessed classes of the U.S. as a whole.

From a very young age, she committed herself to building social and political institutions that would advance struggles against racism while bringing about economic and political equality.

As a teenager in 1933, she marched in an anti-lynching parade instigated by the Communist Party's defense of the Scottsboro Boys, nine young men falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama. Later in the 1930s, she attended public forums--what she called "rap sessions"--with white artists like Si Gordon and Morris Topchevsky about the writings of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, and she studied the lives of Black freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass.

In the late 1930s, Burroughs became a contributor to the African American newspaper The Chicago Defender. Her August 31, 1940 column, titled "A Negro Mother Looks at War," attacked the Second World War as a war for profits for which African Americans would pay a special cost:

Who is the god of War? The god of war is greed. Money-hungry mad men make the wars. Always the poor people are forced to fight in the wars. This is not a people's war. The British and French imperialists are fighting the German imperialists. The people pay the price.

In the same editorial, she called for Black men and women to "mass themselves in a solid flank" to end lynching and do away with "jimcrowism and segregation":

[I]f all black men and women would mass themselves in solid opposition to war we would see America really being American to BLACK AMERICANS...Fighting for this ideal black women would be laying a firm foundation for the future of this country lifting ourselves up and off the lowest rung of the economic ladder and insuring that one-third of the nation which is ill-housed, ill-clothed and ill-fed [gets] a new birth.

In 1940, the same year as her editorial, Burroughs had rolled up her sleeves to become a founding member of the South Side Community Arts Center, a cultural center on the city's South Side sponsored by the Works Progress Administration. She helped to build the Center literally by hand. When it was dedicated on May 8, 1941, an event attended by Eleanor Roosevelt, Burroughs gave a speech arguing, "Now, in this critical wartime period, we have our own plans for defense; a plan in defense of culture":

We believed that the purpose of art was to record the times. As young black artists, we looked around and recorded in our various media what we saw. It was not from our imagination that we painted slums and ghettos, or sad, hollow-eyed black men, women and children. They were the people around us.

We were part of them. They were us.

BURROUGH'S WORDS echoed the militant defiance of African Americans seeking sovereignty and self-determination in the face of a segregated armed forces, massive unemployment and economic suffering during the depression, as well as a need to stand firm in the face of global fascism. The Art Center in turn became a centerpiece for groundbreaking African American artists like Burroughs, the painter Charles White, the sculptor Elizabeth Catlett and the photographer Gordon Parks.

It also became a meeting ground for cultural workers and organized labor. In 1941, for example, the Center hosted a "Cultural Fiesta" sponsored by the cultural committee of the National Negro Congress. The Congress was comprised largely of members of the Communist Party, including Ishmael Flory, a South Side housing activist and close friend of Burroughs. The Fiesta featured art, music, "Negro songs of protest" and group singing by the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers union to commemorate the organization of Black and white sharecroppers in Missouri.

Burroughs also served in 1944 as executive secretary for the South Side Citizens Committee on African and Colonial Affairs, a local branch of the New York-based Council on African Affairs. The committee sponsored that year an Interracial Conference on the Arts featuring a performance by Paul Robeson, a man Burroughs described as the greatest single inspiration of her young life. During the 1940s, Burroughs, like Robeson, considered herself "sympathetic" to Communist politics in part for its calls for interracial unity: "Black and White Unite and Fight" had been the Party's rallying cry during her youth.

In 1953, Burroughs followed the lead of fellow African American artists Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett by going to Mexico City to study printmaking and art under Leopold Mendez at the Institute of Painting and Sculpture in Mexico City. Burroughs's visual art was heavily influenced by the themes and techniques of Mexican artists and revolutionaries like Diego Rivera and David Siquieros, who had used their art to celebrate Mexican struggles against colonialism and the role of ordinary people, or "folk" in that struggle.

In the 1960s, Burroughs, like Robeson and Langston Hughes before her, visited the Soviet Union with the Detroit poet and publisher Dudley Randall. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Burroughs regularly visited Africa to acquire artwork for the DuSable collection. She founded the DuSable in part because during the Cold War, she was refused membership in the South Side Community Art Center for what she perceived to be her radical politics. In 1977, Burroughs obtained a copy of her 450-page FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act, just three years before she was one of 10 Black artists honored by Jimmy Carter at the White House.

Burroughs's long commitment to racial equality reflects a lifetime commitment to a vision of radical social equality for all. She rightly saw the struggle for Black freedom as central to the struggle for human freedom in a modern world where slavery, racism and colonialism had scarred millions across the globe. From that perspective, she imagined an art and a culture that could "defend" ordinary people everywhere from attacks by imperialism, war, racism and capitalist inequality--the very things her "supporters' like Richard Daley and Barack Obama work to prop up.

Margaret Burroughs was not just Chicago's freedom fighter. She was the world's. The greatest justice to her legacy would be to remember her that way and to continue to fight for the world that she imagined.

Further Reading

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