Margaret Burroughs' impact felt all over South Side

November 22, 2010

Burroughs was a force in Chicago. Even though I never met her, as a South Sider, you're never too far from her touch. My father is on the board of DuSable Museum. I'm in a writers group at the South Side Community Arts Center, which she founded while still in her 20s. I recall memorizing her famous poem "What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?" while in day camp in the 1980s. The print in this photo is really my mother's that I, um, happened to "borrow."

Margaret Burroughs was called an institution builder. Her biggest legacy is founding the DuSable Museum of African American History - the first of its kind in the country.

Last month art maven, educator and poet Burroughs received the Legends and Legacy Award from the Art Institute of Chicago. We learned that DuSable Museum was originally the Ebony Museum of African American History back in 1961. It was an outgrowth of salons Burroughs and her husband hosted in their home with the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes. The tribute included music from Maggie Brown, a video message from artist Elizabeth Catlett, poetry from teenagers and scores of well wishes. The packed auditorium warmly celebrated Burroughs.

Afterward there was a dinner in the Modern Wing. Everyone received cupcakes and sang "happy birthday" to Burroughs. I was in the audience and remember thinking how great it is to honor people while they are still living. Apparently, Burroughs thought so, too. "She really loved it. She took a lot of pleasure out of it," said Carol Adams, head of DuSable Museum. "She said she wanted wanted to get her flowers while she could still smell them."

Burroughs didn't want a funeral. Instead there will be a memorial will be held in 2011. But I have a feeling the tributes will start now.