Founder of Chicago's DuSable Museum dies

November 21, 2010 9:30:05 PM PST
Dr. Margaret Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History, has died at age 95.

Burroughs died in her sleep at home in Chicago Sunday.

President Obama issued the following statement:

"Michelle and I are saddened by the passing of Dr. Margaret Burroughs, who was widely admired for her contributions to American culture as an esteemed artist, historian, educator and mentor."

Mayor Richard Daley also issued a statement indicating that Chicago was a better place because of Dr. Margaret Burroughs.

Burroughs first started the museum collection in her home 49 years ago because she had a vision and a dream to bring African-American history to Chicago. The DuSable Museum was the first of its kind in the country, and it is the largest museum of black history.

"I grew up in a city where there was a museum that celebrated my culture long before that happened anywhere else in the world, and it gave me a great sense of who I could be in the world," said artist Deborah Hand.

Burroughs, an artist, poet, writer and educator, was honored for her work in October at the Art Institute of Chicago. The trailblazer was being remembered Sunday night as a remarkable human being, keeper of history, and a champion for those whose voices were unheard.

"For those people in the museum world, she built what is known as an icon. When I introduce myself to people in the museum world and say, 'DuSable is,' they say, 'Don't insult me. Everybody knows what DuSable Museum is,'" said Cheryl Bryson Blackwell, chairman of the DuSable Board of Trustees.

The icon that Dr. Burrough's built brings in generations of visitors.

"This museum means a lot to me. I came here when I was a kid. [It] gave us a little insight on our history," one museum visitor told ABC7.

Burroughs started the museum in 1961 her South Side home. Ten years later, it moved to Chicago's Washington Park neighborhood and was renamed for Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, known as the first permanent settler in Chicago.

However, leaders across the Chicago area say they remember Dr. Burroughs for much more. Congressman Bobby Rush, for example, says she was always encouraging him. Rush recalled her favorite phrase Sunday:

"'Boy, you're going good,'" Rush said. "And my response to her is, and was,'Yes, ma'am. I'm glad I'm making you proud.'"

Rev. Jesse Jackson says he remembers Burroughs as a pillar of strength.

"She was a Renaissance woman. She knew Paul Robeson. She knew Dr. Dubois. She knew Dr. King. She knew Harold Washington. She's just a walking piece of history," Jackson told ABC7 via telephone.

Dr. Burroughs' hope was not only to teach young people about their heritage, but to teach all people that they can contribute.

"Any artist in this city owes their career -- if they are of color -- to Dr. Burroughs," Hand said.

Burroughs studied at Chicago State University and taught at DuSable High School in the city's Bronzeville neighborhood. Even at the museum, many say she was always a teacher, constantly challenging others to do better. Towards the end of her incredibly productive life, Dr. Burrough's mission was teach others about the importance of a legacy.

"She would come to board meetings, and she would bring poetry. And she always challenged you. 'What will your legacy be?' 'What are you doing with this time that you have been blessed with to have on the face of the earth?' 'What will your legacy be?'" Blackwell said.

"She implored all of us to have a legac. Do something important enough that is going to live beyond you," Dr. Carol Adams said.

"She was a person who really felt like you should serve and that you should give your all until the end," museum board member Don Jackson said.

At 95, Burroughs contiunued to teach high school and volunteered once a week at a state prison. She talked about her legacy during an interview with ABC7 Chicago in 2004.

"This is my philosophy. You're born, and you live, and you ought to leave something other than just a tombstone signifying that you were here. And so, people will know I was here," she said.

Dr. Burroughs will live on through all the artists, poets, authors, and students she taught and inspired, as well as the vistors to the DuSable Museum.

Into her 90s, Burroughs remained very active as a roller skater and bowler.

ABC7 is told she did not want a funeral. A public memorial is being planned after the holidays.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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