The Woman Who Helped Birth a Black Artistic Renaissance in Chicago
In the 1940s, Margaret Taylor Burroughs bolstered the careers of some of Chicago's most iconic artists by holding culture salons in her barn and later starting an African American museum in her home.
Illustration by Laura Freeman.
The guests sat on the floor, sipping martinis or coffee and pondering society’s great problems until the wee hours of the morning, sometimes the next afternoon. A gentleman in the corner strummed on a guitar and gave Russian language lessons between songs. Paint and artist tools lay strewn across the floor. Gwendolyn Brooks, a decade before winning a Pulitzer Prize, would hang around, laughing and sharing secrets. At times, soon-to-be civil rights icon Paul Robeson or celebrated sculptor Elizabeth Catlett would swing by. The renowned painter Eldzier Cortor could sometimes be found there as well, alongside luminary poets like Margaret Walker and Langston Hughes.
This was the scene throughout the 1940s at Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs’ old home in Bronzeville on the South Side of Chicago, as described in essays by Brooks and documented by various photographers. These cultural salons, which took place in Burroughs’ barn, helped incubate the creative practices of current day artistic icons, and are one of the reasons that Bronzeville is now known as the birthplace of the Chicago Black Renaissance. And if Bronzeville was the birthplace of that cultural reawakening, then Burroughs—an artist, poet, and educator who eventually founded Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History—is one of the godmothers.
Burroughs was born in Louisiana in 1917 and brought to Chicago by her parents at the age of five. She attended the (then) predominantly white Englewood High School with a number of Black friends, many of whom would eventually become the celebrated artists at her cultural salons. She joined the youth council of the NAACP, and was an inaugural member of an Arts and Crafts Guild with fellow teens interested in furthering the study and creation of Black art. For her and her peers, art making was about more than creative expression—it was about Black people’s ability to define their own narrative, and it was intimately intertwined with politics and activism.
“[I]f all black men and women would mass themselves in solid opposition to war, we would see America really being American to BLACK AMERICANS,” wrote a 23-year-old Burroughs in 1940 in a column for The Chicago Defender. “Fighting for this ideal, black women would be laying a firm foundation for the future of this country lifting ourselves up and off the lowest rung of the economic ladder and insuring that one-third of the nation which is ill-housed, ill-clothed and ill-fed [gets] a new birth.”
That same year, after extensive fundraising, Burroughs and members of her artistic community bought a building across the street from her home to start the South Side Community Arts Center, a three-story mecca for writers and artists. The center’s operations were initially funded by the Works Progress Association, and the opening ceremony was broadcast nationwide on CBS radio and attended by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt. In fall 2017, it was heralded as a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Burroughs’ gatherings with writers and artists at the SSCAC and her own home helped forge the Chicago Black Renaissance—the city’s response to Harlem’s own literary and artistic revival in the 1920s—which flourished throughout the 1940s and left an indelible mark on the city. Despite occurring in the midst and aftermath of the Great Depression, the second World War, and the Great Migration, the moment’s creative output was rich with swaggering pro-Black, pro-woman hubris. It was during that fruitful period that Thomas Dorsey created gospel music in Bronzeville, Richard Wright wrote Native Son, and Katherine Dunham opened a school of dance that celebrated the African diaspora. And within this swirling sauna of Black thought and social action, Burroughs produced mini books on Black history and assembled a massive art collection that provided crucial historical underpinnings for Black contemporary art canon blossoming into existence.
Burroughs published her first children’s book in 1947, procured both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago by 1948, and later became known for her block prints and paintings depicting “Negro life” in the city. All the while, she worked as a teacher and collected African masks, fabrics, and historical ephemera while traveling during her time off. In an effort to create more space to show Black art and correct the white-washed narrative of art history, she eventually began displaying those items in the mansion she shared with her second husband, the poet and newspaper man Charles Burroughs.
By the early 1960s, their home became officially known as the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art—renamed the DuSable Museum of African American History in 1968. As one of the few resources for learning about African American history in the city at the time, the museum drew a constant flow of Black students, artists, and others to 38th and south Michigan Avenue and became a hub for activists who needed a place to gather.
In 1971, the museum moved to a new location in a massive park just south of Bronzeville and now sees hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. Chance the Rapper is among the roster of Chicago’s cultural heavyweights who sit on its board of directors.
Although Burroughs' literary and artistic achievements are many, most agree that starting the DuSable is her greatest. She saw very clearly that art and history are inextricably connected to politics and economics. Slave laws and Illinois’ own “Black Codes,” which were observed until the mid-1960s, made it illegal for Black people to gather in groups of three or more, and very difficult for them to attend colleges. Creating something as simple as an arts club was radical. And telling Black people that their art, dance, poems, and music was valuable countered the prevailing thought that Blacks had no history or culture other than slavery and therefore would always remain second class citizens without rights.
For Burroughs, who died in 2010, preserving and teaching Black history and creativity was an act of resistance against cultural erasure. Perhaps that’s why, in her opening speech for the SSCAC, she was fierce and unwavering in her resolve to uplift. “Now,” she declared, “in this critical wartime period, we have our own plans for defense; a plan in defense of culture."