Stop for a moment and listen to me and answer this question if you can:
What will your legacy be?
When you must cross that great divide into an area from which none can hide. When you, alone, with no one by your side with no friend to lead you or to hold your hand?
What will your legacy be?
What deeds have you done in your lifetime which will be left for you to be remembered by?
-from “What Will Your Legacy Be”
Margaret Taylor Burroughs didn’t come into the world on the South Side of Chicago, but she called it home for nearly 90 years, and on the morning of Sunday, November 21, surrounded by family at her Bronzeville home, this was the place of her peaceful exit. The artist, educator, poet, curator, community organizer, and mother to many thought often about what kind of world she would leave behind. She spent much of her public life asking us to do the same. Burroughs has departed, but her artwork and the poems she created, the institutions she built, and the students she mentored are all still with us. This is Margaret Burroughs’s legacy.
She was born Margaret Victoria Taylor on the first of November, 1917 in the tiny river town of St. Rose, just outside of New Orleans, Lousiana. The youngest of three sisters, her family lived in a clapboard house on former plantation land where her ancestors had once been slaves. Burroughs wrote in her memoir, “My father so loved the land, believing that once we owned our own property and had the ability to farm it, we could then dictate our destiny and become independent and prosperous.” But small agriculture was fading, and prosperity and destiny were moving to the cities. When Taylor was five, her father received a letter from his brothers in Chicago. Burroughs recalled, “The letter boasted of all the fine opportunities there for those who wanted to work for good wages, and, moreover, of the fine educational facilities they had. ‘And no lynchings,’ the letter ended.” In shifts, the family moved to Chicago, “with all its buildings, bigness and people—all sorts of people.” Burroughs wrote, “We instantly liked it.”
The Chicago her family moved to in the early 1920s had far fewer lynchings than rural Louisiana, but it had no shortage of racist housing laws, segregated schools, buses, and fire departments. While Burroughs’s father now worked for a wage, her mother did domestic work for white families in Hyde Park and the Gold Coast.
At Englewood High School, with her classmate and future Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, she joined the NAACP Youth Council. The two marched with a group of teenagers to free the Scottsboro Boys. Upon graduating, Burroughs was awarded a full-tuition scholarship to Howard University, but her family couldn’t afford to pay for the train ticket, or for room and board. With guidance from a white elementary school teacher whom she would always remember as a mentor, she took the exam for the Teachers’ College at Chicago State University. By 1939, she was licensed and working for the Chicago Board of Education. But teaching was a day job; Burroughs was already building a life around art.
When she was in her third year at Teacher’s College, Burroughs met her first husband, the artist Bernard Goss, at a party to raise money for artists. Burroughs and Goss had a daughter together, but the marriage was troubled almost immediately. Their artistic aspirations didn’t pay well, and Burroughs’s teaching was supporting them both, even as Goss strayed. Burroughs wrote of the moment she learned of Goss’s infidelity as “my most serious moment of grief and pain.” The couple split when Goss was out of the country during World War II and divorced when the conflict ended. They maintained a friendship afterwards, largely out of mutual respect for one another and the work they had done.
In 1940, at age 23, Burroughs became the youngest founder of the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC). During the Depression, with money from the Work Projects Administration, a coalition of Bronzeville community members sought to turn a former railroad men’s club into a public art center. The 3831 South Michigan address was across the street from the coach house she and Goss were renting, and the couple quickly became leaders in the effort. Burroughs, her husband, and other artists including Fred Jones, Charles White, and Archibald Motley Jr. worked with local businessmen to raise the money necessary to purchase the property and organize the renovation.
In 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt inaugurated the center at a ceremony broadcast on national radio. Burroughs addressed the crowd. “Now, in this critical wartime period, we have our own plan for defense; a plan in the defense of culture. The opportunities which we have now, in the coming of the art center, we did not have before. This quickens our determination to see it that this art center, the first of it’s kind on the South Side, and one of the few in the country shall stand and flourish.”
The SSCAC made Bronzeville a mecca for black artists in Chicago. Even after federal money ceased in the early ’40s, the center sustained itself, sometimes barely, through the support of patrons. Burroughs said of the energy that went into the center, “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.” Today the SSCAC is in its 70th year, and is the only remaining arts facility from the WPA days.
Burroughs attended the Art Institute of Chicago, where she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1946 and a Masters in art education in 1948. In her studies she came across the Taller de Gráfica Popular. The Mexican muralists’ use of social commentary inspired her work. In 1953, Burroughs travelled to Mexico City to study printmaking and art under Leopoldo Méndez, a prominent printmaker of the Diego Rivera circle. The influence of Mexican muralists helped her to develop the distinctive style she used in her iconic white-on-black prints of African and American history. The social aims of the Mexican muralists also had an impact on her philosophy of art; throughout her life, Burroughs made art about a world she shared with others.
Burroughs’s second husband was Charles Burroughs, the Brooklyn-born, Moscow-raised son of a black teacher and activist who moved to the Soviet Union to work as an English language broadcaster for Radio Moscow. They met at a lecture that he gave in Chicago. They both made an impression. He was an intellectual, spoke Russian fluently, and English with a heavy accent, and drank straight vodka (he called it “special water”). She had the conscience and independence he admired in his mother. Several years later Margaret proposed to him. They were married on December 23, 1949, and remained together living and working until his death almost 45 years later. The couple’s Bronzeville home became a well-known salon that drew, among others, W. E. B. DuBois, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin.
Burroughs’s activism and her dialogues with artists and political organizers on the left raised suspicion. In 1952 she was called before the Chicago Board of Education and asked to explain her politics. “I was asked about a jailed communist, Earl Browder, whose petition for release I had signed,” she wrote in her memoirs. “And then, in a roundabout way, they asked me about people I worked with.” The Board was out for teachers believed to have communist sympathies. “Believing a person’s political and religious beliefs to be solely their own business, [I] refused to name anyone.” Burroughs considered resigning, took a brief sabbatical instead, and soon returned to the school system. In 1977, under the Freedom of Information Act, Burroughs obtained a copy of her 400-page FBI file, which recorded her actions throughout the years.
In 1961, Burroughs began her best-known legacy when she and her husband turned their home at 3806 South Michigan Avenue into the first African-American history museum in the country. The couple had already been organizing. In the late 1950s, while few galleries showcased black work, she helped launch the Lake Meadows Art Fair at the shopping center at 35th and King. “The white community had an art fair in Hyde Park on 57th Street so we decided to have one for ourselves,” Burroughs told the Chicago Defender. Between the art fair, and the overwhelming attendance at their salon, the Burroughs decided to start an institution. They put out an open call for museum pieces, and opened to the public with 100 items. In 1971 the museum moved to its current location in a former Parks Department building in Washington Park and expanded drastically. It currently houses over 15,000 pieces of art and historical artifacts. Burroughs served as a director of the museum until 1984.
Burroughs knew her influence, and she was proud. In an interview she gave just over a year ago when she was awarded one of many lifetime achievement awards, she was asked about her age. It wasn’t going to stand in her way: “I still have work to do,” she said.
From 1969 through 1979 she was a professor of humanities at Kennedy King College, and in 1986—seven years after her official retirement in 1979—she was appointed a commissioner of the Chicago Park District, a position she held until her death. She published several collections of her own poems and edited several for others. Poems like “What Will Your Legacy Be?” read like the counsel of a friend. In her 1968 poem “What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?” she put forward the critical dilemma of black parenthood in such compelling, universally relatable language that her lines are still passed through anthologies and internet chat rooms. Even in her last years, she wrote and spoke to school groups often. For years she taught classes every Tuesday to men at Stateville Penitentiary.
And to the end, Burroughs had fun. She took up roller skating in her eighties. She had a collection of Chuck Taylor shoes she wore all the time. She rode the bus all over town. Faheem Majeed, current executive director of the South Side Community Art Center, recalls her vitality, even later on in life. “She was not a 95-year-old 95-year-old. People in the same room would wonder why I wasn’t helping her, but I knew she would smack me upside the head if I tried.”
Since the day of her death, the tributes have been rolling in, from friends and family, major newspapers, and even President Obama, reflecting on her life and interpreting its lessons. She built her legacy; the task now at hand is to carry it on.
Think now! Act now! To insure that your legacy will be a positive contribution to humanity and you will be remembered, yes you will be remembered, on and on and in eternity as God wills it.