Dr. Margaret Burroughs: The Making of a Legacy
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
By Dr. Mary Ann Cain
Presented by Omni-University
"...Think now! Act Now! To insure that your legacy will be a positive contribution to humanity and you will be remembered...""What Will Your Legacy Be?" by Dr. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs.
I have had the honor and privilege of writing the first book-length biography of a beloved Ancestor, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, a long- time Chicago resident. It was she who brought me into a particular understanding of community, as affirmed by Dr. Gloria Latimore Peace, i.e., community centers on shared values. It is not limited or defined by physical or geographical proximity. Many of you may have known Dr. Burroughs personally and shared her concern about the development and passing on of legacy. My intention is to play my role in helping to continue her legacy. Dr. Burroughs demonstrated how shared values meant not just simple agreement, but the invitation and cultivation of many diverse voices within a community. There can and should be discussion, dissent, debate, disagreement, but all in the spirit of respect and self-realization. Dr. Burroughs was deeply respected as someone who could bring peace and order to conversations that might otherwise have ended without true dialogue. While not everyone embraced her progressive politics or singular style as an artist, she was known and valued as someone who “walked her talk.” As a "culture maker", Dr. Burroughs engaged in producing visual art as a way of expressing the world she and her artist cohort experienced. She made a conscious choice early on to genuinely represent her world following the lead of both fellow artist contemporaries and those who preceded her as she engaged in social activism. She made the authentic history of her people her priority. She made both history and art accessible to the many people in her community through the institutions she co- founded: The Du Sable Museum of African American History and The South Side Community Art Center. Dr. Burroughs never wavered in her belief that art was an important way to reach young people and bring them into a sense of themselves, their history, and their heritage. As Masequa Myers and Pemon Rami observed in their H30 Art of Life Show interview, “Community Matters. Who Cares?”, the arts are a necessary instrument for capturing the attention of youth, especially today when so many have been given over to technological devices in lieu of genuine guidance from and dialogue with their elders. The problem of maintaining legacies, such as that of Dr. Burroughs’, is hardly new since forces of resistance continue to challenge communities grounded in values that counter white nationalist systems of power. What is hopeful at this moment, however, is that the values embraced by Dr. Burroughs and others of her generation, as well as generations preceding hers , continue to be made visible and enacted on a large scale, nationally and internationally. Fortunately, we still recognize and oppose structures and systems of power that oppress groups of people for whatever "reason". As Ancestor, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, "No man is free until every man is free", a value that Dr. Burroughs undoubtedly shared.
Art is a means by which groups can develop a sense of self, individually and collectively. Art was Dr. Burroughs’s means of developing self- knowledge. In doing so, she, and others around her, fostered what Wayne Sebamurti Gentry asserted, in The H30 Art of Life Program, "A Gathering of Griots" Part 1, as the necessary process of maturation and realization of one’s humanity. The work of artists such as Dr. Burroughs, is necessary for providing the guidance one needs to mature and contribute to community in beneficial ways. As a young woman, Dr. Burroughs continued her journey towards maturation and realization as she and fellow Art Crafts Guild artists helped establish the South Side Community Art Center. The SSDAC became a hub for community engagement that reached beyond artistic production and assisted in other forms of activism, including labor organizing. These young artists learned how to stand up for the community values embodied in their work and claim a place at the table as "culture makers" from artists in the "WPA", i.e.,Works Progress Administration, who were also part of The Chicago Artists Union. During World War II, when the Works Progress Administration abruptly curtailed resources aimed at building communities, Dr. Burroughs met another challenge. The South Side Community Art Center, an institution to which she had devoted her life’s work, rejected her membership and cut off her affiliation. Their reason? Her support of Paul Robeson, the great singer and actor who was blacklisted for his political viewpoint during the "Red Scare" of the 1940s and 50s. The Bronzeville neighborhood housed (and still houses) SSCAC, but the community was not controlled by the people who lived in it. However, the community whose values Dr. Burroughs embraced reached beyond the geographical boundaries and political repression based, in part, on economic and other inequalities. Her community included everyone who cared about freedom, justice, and equality and the importance of culture as a means to those ends. Her community included those who understood the work that needed to be done to identify and restore the perspective that white supremacism had erased.Those who valued the intergenerational ties that made the transmission of legacies possible were an integral part of that community. Through the cultural work of art, education, historical memory, and institution- building, Dr. Burroughs and her generation created new structures and systems to serve the community in more just and equitable ways. This realization was an achievement in and of itself, a legacy gifted by previous generations whose stories were only barely known but nonetheless survived. Dr. Burroughs extended those legacies by creating institutions. It’s up to us to ensure that legacies such as that of Dr. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs are passed down to younger generations. As Masequa Myers has recommended, we need to do better at listening to young people and connecting our knowledge to their experiences.
As a white woman who grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago, whose ancestors lived in the "Back of the Yards" neighborhood, and whose economic well-being depended upon ancestors who did business in Bronzeville, I am grateful to Dr. Burroughs for listening , reaching out, and introducing to me , legacies that I had not known existed because they were not present in the racist systems and structures that excluded them. She awakened me to the community whose values I truly share and in which I seek to continue as an active participant.
"Remembering Margaret", An episode of Omni-U Presents: "The H3O Art of Life" television show, featuring Omni-U Faculty member, and author of today's blog, Dr. Mary Ann Cain, follows.