The extraordinarily productive life of curator, artist, and activist Margaret Burroughs was largely rooted in her work to establish and sustain two significant institutions in Chicago: the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC), founded in 1940, and the DuSable Museum of African American History, founded in her living room in 1961.
As Mary Ann Cain’s South Side Venus: The Legacy of Margaret Burroughs reveals, the primary motivations for these efforts were love and hope. Burroughs was spurred by her love for Chicago’s African American community—largely ill served by mainstream arts organizations—and by her hope that these new, black-run cultural centers would welcome many generations of aspiring artists and art lovers.
This first, long-awaited biography of Burroughs draws on interviews with peers, colleagues, friends, and family, and extensive archival research at the DuSable Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Public Library. Cain traces Burroughs’s multifaceted career, details her work and residency on Chicago’s South Side, and highlights her relationships with other artists and culture makers. Here, we see Burroughs as teacher and mentor as well as institution builder.
Anchored by the author’s talks with Burroughs as they stroll through her beloved Bronzeville, and featuring portraits of Burroughs with family and friends, South Side Venus will enlighten anyone interested in Chicago, African American history, social justice, and the arts.
Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I might not have believed it. Everywhere she went that day, Margaret Burroughs, or Dr. B, as she was known, was stopped on the street, greeted, and thanked profusely. People, her people, “the little people” as she affectionately called those with whom she identified, those who lingered on the streets of Bronzeville that hot, humid, quintessential Chicago August afternoon, knew this eighty-eight-year-old elder by sight. We could scarcely walk a block or two without someone rushing up to say hello, someone whose life she had touched. For all its purported problems, the South Side clearly cherished its homegrown treasure.
We had begun our afternoon walk at 3806 S. Michigan Avenue. Once the home of Margaret and Charles Burroughs and their children, Gayle and Paul, this historic building represents decades of Bronzeville art, artists, and sociability. It was also a haven for those who suffered from bigotry and hatred, a place to repair, rejoice, and relax. The first home of the DuSable Museum of African American History, Burroughs called it her home for decades, but it was a home that, like her life, had more gatherings, conversations, activities, and planning sessions than anyone can ever account for. The house at 3806 S. Michigan Avenue was the old Griffith mansion, later the Quinn Club, a railroad workers’ boardinghouse, and it would eventually become the Ebony Museum, predecessor to the DuSable Museum that twenty years later would move eighteen blocks south to Washington Park.
But today, 3806 was simply her home. Burroughs ushered me into the dim, regal foyer paneled with rich mahogany, a worn but still vibrant ruby carpet underfoot, while she gathered her things. A Siamese cat sauntered over from the living room, closely pursued by two children, a preteen girl and a much younger boy, swishing red-and-white pompoms. The Siamese cat seemed undisturbed, more curious about the newcomer. When I reached down, he graciously allowed me to scratch his silky head.
“That’s Humphrey Bogart,” said Dr. B, adjusting her hat. “You must be a good person. He doesn’t like everybody.”
For a moment, I wondered just how good a person would ask an eighty-eight-year-old to walk her around the neighborhood to snap photos of local landmarks on such a sultry day. All Dr. Burroughs knew was that I was writing a novel that used Bronzeville as a backdrop. True, we had had other meetings prior to this; I had brought her to northeast Indiana as a visiting artist for the university and community center a year or so earlier. But when I asked her if she’d walk me around Bronzeville, she never questioned my motives or hesitated in her response.
On this, my first visit to her home, Dr. B made sure I saw the rooms where it all began. These would be the only rooms, aside from the vestibule, that I would see, at least in person.
The young sister-and-brother pair mugged for my camera and then disappeared upstairs. I pondered who these children might be. I also wondered to what use this sprawling Victorian mansion had been and was currently being put. For Margaret Burroughs was a practical woman who was loath to waste anything.
I knew this firsthand from her visits to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she insisted on trips to the local thrift stores to enrich her and others’ wardrobes. Always colorful and well-coordinated, Dr. B’s clothes were enviably stylish; she could rake through racks of thrift shop goods and zoom in on a find so quickly that I could barely work one rack before she was ready to move on to the next store. One of her closest friends, Eleanor Chatman, recounted a story about a similar trip she took with Dr. B. Burroughs, who had found a desirable item of clothing, a skirt, for the modest sum of four dollars. But she had refused to buy it, claiming she could get the same item at a store on another side of town for only three. Call her what you may, Dr. B was thrifty but not cheap. That dollar she saved almost certainly went toward buying art supplies for her “boys” at Stateville Penitentiary in Joliet. Indeed, Margaret Burroughs was known and loved by many as the most generous of women.
When I inquired about the parents of the boy and girl I had seen, Dr. B told me that they were boarders. She had always lived with many others around her, first in St. Rose, Louisiana, among extended family and community. Upon her arrival in Chicago, she continued to live in close quarters with family, ten or so to a flat. Far from evoking the haunting images of Richard Wright’s Twelve Million Voices, Dr. B’s recollections of such living arrangements are of warmth and sharing. Her entire life had been in shared residences of one form or another. When she and her new roommate, the artist Elizabeth Catlett (whom Dr. B would later introduce to her first husband and Dr. B’s high school chum, Charles White), shared an apartment, their flat was a frequent destination for artists and aficionados when they flung open their door and made room on the walls and floors for their fellow artists’ latest endeavors. Even after Margaret’s first marriage to Bernard Goss, their place, as noted by the art critic Willard Motley, was perhaps modest in décor but rich in art and the people with whom they shared it. And of course, the Burroughses’ kitchen table salons were renowned and revered among Bronzeville residents and beyond for the lively conversations, hospitality, and the art that hung everywhere in their home. Even before she and Charles took up the former Quincy Club owner on his offer to sell them the mansion that dwarfed the carriage house to its rear where Margaret and Charles had been living, 3806 S. Michigan Avenue had housed many railroad porters away from home on their train runs.
At the time of this, my first visit, however, I did not imagine my hostas anything other than very practical and sensible. After all, she had lost Charlie over ten years ago, and to live alone, pay heating bills, and keep up such a sprawling residence would be an enormous challenge for anyone, let alone an 88-year-old widow. Taking on boarders seemed entirely logical. Only years later did I understand how this assumed practicality—to pay bills and have help with maintenance—was my own projection. For Dr. B, sharing her residence was familiar and welcome. According to her eldest grandson, Eric Toller, she was not interested in collecting rent. On the contrary—she saw herself as having the room, and seeing the need, she took people in. She did not wish to profit from other people’s vulnerabilities.
The living room, dark and cool in this August heat, beckoned. The Siamese cat, Humphrey Bogart, cried in that eerie caterwaul that only Siamese produce. The house was thick with cat smells; many cats had taken up residence in the now-abandoned basement. My eyes, initially captured by worn but still regal ruby carpeting and burled oak moldings and panels from the original mansion, were startled by shocks of bright colors and simple, modern forms from murals decorating the walls. I dutifully took out my camera and snapped a couple of shots, trying to comprehend this dim, somewhat cluttered parlor as the beginnings of a proud museum.
I did not know at that time that many, if not most, institutions dedicated to African American history had similarly homespun beginnings. The fact that Margaret and Charles took on the responsibility and also the sacrifice to open their family home to busloads of schoolchildren, as well as the stray arts devotee, was difficult for me to comprehend as I stood before a mural of three young women. All of them were wearing “naturals,” just as Dr. B so famously had done a decade before Black Power made Afros a sort of racial union card, and all three were absorbed in a large, hardcover book they held aloft. Before them stood a globe tilted to show the bronze continents of the Americas cupping the blue waters of the Atlantic, mirroring a similar continental “hand” to the east with Europe and Africa. Above the three women were dark shapes of human forms lined up behind a Middle Passage boat. In the middle was the bust of an African man, a Western sculptor’s interpretation perhaps of an African face, drawing upon traditional tribal masks. To the right of this mural was another. Painted vines and house plants framed a colorful interior scene, with a clock almost out of Dali, not melting but tilted on a stair, half its numbers scattered from its face, along with toys and other educational items. In the window of this scene, a red and green car waited, as if to say to the young visitors, “Learning is your vehicle to this world and beyond.”
The scale and subject matter of these murals claim a much more public space than the typical family dwelling. Not only would one expect murals to be a rare decoration in Bronzeville, or for that matter, most single-family homes, but certainly two that depict reading, history, and the joys of travel are exceptional for any place and time. These were far from merely decorative accoutrements; they served a clear educational purpose, so much in keeping with what Dr. B’s art aimed to do. I would later learn of just how many busloads of people from all walks of life, from neighbors and fellow artists to Charlie’s beloved Russian circus performers, would sit at the picnic table in the downstairs kitchen and talk art, literature, politics, and, given Dr. B’s ever-present agenda of coordinating and organizing people, about the next civic project or action. Long after the Supreme Court decision in 1947 to overturn the last housing covenants that had barred blacks from living beyond Bronzeville, the Burroughses’ kitchen table was still the place to come.
Dr. B seemed satisfied by my photographic documentation of the murals. She regarded such documentation as essential, to the point, I dare say, of obsession. She looked to institution building for creating repositories of such documents. Her own home continued to serve as such a place even after the DuSable Museum moved to Washington Park and the South Side Community Art Center continued to sponsor artists, writers, and performing artists decades after its founding during the Great Depression. Very few such artifacts escaped her notice or interest.
As Dr. B made her way down the grand staircase leading to the street, her hand firmly on the iron rail, I could not help but notice the steady confidence in her movements. When she reached for my elbow as we crossed the first of many streets that afternoon, I did not know for certain if that was to steady herself or to steady me, the obvious outsider. Later that afternoon she would make the same gesture as I prepared to board a northbound bus back to the Loop in the center of downtown, but it quickly dissolved into a friendly, heartfelt hug.
“Let’s go,” she said. As if she knew she was bringing me home to a place that until now I had never understood as my own.
Excerpt from South Side Venus
Mary Ann Cain‘s critical work on writing theory and praxis includes a collaborative book (with Michelle Comstock and Lil Brannon), Composing Public Space: Teaching Writing in the Face of Private Interests. Her fiction, nonfiction essays, and poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including the Denver Quarterly, The Sun: A Magazine of Ideas, the Bitter Oleander, and the North American Review. She is currently a professor of English at Purdue University Fort Wayne where she teaches fiction, creative nonfiction, rhetoric, and women’s studies.