Monday, November 22, 2010

A Sad But Uplifting Story

I learned via Twitter – specifically, via my friend John V. Moore of the Windy City Watch Blog – that Dr. Margaret Burroughs, founder of Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African-American History, died over the weekend at the age of 95. Dr. Burroughs was a remarkable woman, and the DuSable Museum is a remarkable place. From the Chicago Defender:

The St. Rose, Louisiana native came to Chicago with her parents when she was 5 years old. She studied teaching and art at Chicago State University and the Art Institute of Illinois. She also attended Columbia University in New York and the Institute of Painting and Sculpture in Mexico City in Mexico. Years later, Lewis University in Illinois gave her an honorary doctorate.

Burroughs became a leading force in the Black arts community and founded the Lake Meadows Art Fair and the South Side Community Art Center. She made sure her work, but most importantly, those of other Black artists were featured.

“The white community had an art fair in Hyde Park on 57th Street so we decided to have one for ourselves,” said Burroughs, referring to her and her students.

While art was her passion, so was preserving Black heritage.

Burroughs and her high school students were talking one day about how there were Jewish and Polish museums in Chicago, yet, “the major white museums” didn’t include anything about African-Americans.

“We decided that we should start our own. I remembered something that Booker T. Washington told our people. He said to put down your buckets where you are. We were sitting in my living room and we put down our buckets. We started the museum,” said the self-professed student-teacher of the arts.

Inside her home in the 3800 block of South Michigan Avenue, the country’s first museum of Black history was founded in 1961.

I remember going to the DuSable Museum in the fifth grade, in, I think, the spring of 1973, not long after the Museum had moved out of Dr. Burroughs’ home and into the building it currently occupies in the Washington Park neighborhood of Chicago. My fifth grade teacher was the first African American teacher we’d had at Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School in Oak Park, and she’d begun teaching a nascent course in African American history as part of our general social studies curriculum. Hence, the field trip to DuSable.

Anyway, what I remember most about that field trip was this: After we’d gone through most if not all of the indoor exhibits, they took us outside (and this is why I’m pretty sure it was in the spring of that year) for a demonstration by a genuine Black cowboy, a man who had to be at least 80 to 90 years old, who’d been the real deal in his youth – a horse-riding, cattle roping cowboy out west in the early part of the 20th Century. And you’ll pardon me for saying this, but: Jesus, the guy was cool. He was dressed all in black – black leather vest, black pants, black chaps – and he performed these incredible tricks with a lasso and a long black whip. I can still hear that whip crack! on the sidewalk, just like that. I’d never seen anything like it before and I’ve never seen anything like it since. This guy was living history.

But, so, anyway, here’s the thing I never thought about until I heard that Dr. Burroughs had passed away. In 1972, about a year before my fifth grade class took that trip to DuSable, my dad drafted and submitted to the local school board the first diversity policy our schools ever adopted. In fact, the diversity policy adopted by the Oak Park public schools in 1972 was one of the first of it’s kind anywhere in the United States. More on that another time, perhaps, but here’s the thing: It’s quite possible – not necessarily the case, but quite possible – that the diversity policy my dad drafted for our local schools led to the hiring of my fifth grade teacher, the first African American teacher most of us ever had; and her hiring led to our trip to the DuSable Museum in the spring of 1973, to see, among other things, that incredible Black cowboy, and that’s a memory that stays with me to this day and remains one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

So there you go. You just never know how your life is going to overlap with the lives of other people, even people from disparate backgrounds and across large spans of time.

Dr. Burroughs, you will be missed. For my part, I just have to say thank you for one of the best memories a fifth grader could ever have.

© 2010 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.


  1. That is an awesome story. I just hope we can get past the race baiting crap that seems to be going on in our political world these day and keep the great history of our country and stories like this continuing.

  2. Thanks, Tim. Yeah, it was so cool – just one of those things that stays with you.

    Sadly, you’re right about race-baiting these days. I’d like to think it’s a temporary thing that will pass, but it’s been disturbing lately.