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A Legacy of Upliftment: Margaret Burroughs

“I ask you, what will your legacy be?

Do you know?

Have you thought about it?

Do you have an answer?

What will you leave as your legacy?

If you have no answer.

If at this point, you cannot say,

Hearken!

Listen to me!

This is the moment.

This is the prime moment for you to think

and get to work

and identify what you will leave as your legacy

for you to be remembered by.

You are here.

You, still here, alive and quick and you have time.

You have time on your side.

You have time to begin even now

so get busy and do something to help somebody

to improve the condition of life for people now

and for those to come after.

To building institutions,

to educate and broaden the minds for people now

and for those who came after

and to make your life a contribution

that will be your legacy.

Do this and your name will be remembered

from now on and into eternity.”

— Dr. Margaret T.G. Burroughs

A legacy is defined as something that is handed down or remains from a previous generation or time; as from an ancestor or predecessor. It is what our ancestors have left behind for us and it is what we leave behind for our descendants. A legacy is not something that is owned by any individual, it is a torch to be passed from generation to generation, each one after the other with the understanding that we are doing one work – to leave the world better than when we found it.

Artists posing outside the Southside Community Arts Center, which was founded by Margaret Burroughs

Dr. Burroughs is a shining example of someone who both understood and lived this principle. Her life-long work as an artist, an educator and cultural activist has left a profound impact on a community far out-reaching that of Chicago, one that includes the community of people who are joined by the common thread of art, tradition, expression and responsibility to younger generations. Passing our traditions and experiences on to the youth is a great responsibility and one of the most humbling obligations we have as human beings. The education of our descendants is a top priority in our lives, as we are holding the task of raising people that will improve the condition of the world.

As an educator, Dr. Burroughs has influenced thousands of young people. She understood the responsibility we have during our life’s journey to teach others what we have learned. As a teacher she taught for 20 years in the Chicago public schools and went on to inspire students at a collegiate level as an assistant professor at Chicago Institute of Art, Professor of African American Art and Culture at Elmhurst College, and Professor of Humanities at Kennedy-King Community College. Dr. Burroughs’ overwhelmingly successful teaching methodology was based on having positive expectation of her students. Since the beginning of her teaching career in the early 1940’s, the seeds of a positive self image that she planted in the minds and hearts of her student body still bear rich fruit today.

Her community and cultural activism was nothing short of inspirational. One of her greatest cultural influences has been as co-founder and director of the DuSable Museum of African American History, the first of only a few institutions of its kind in the U.S. Dr. Burroughs believed establishing the DuSable Museum would be her legacy. “Every individual wants to leave a legacy; to be remembered for something positive they have done for the community,” said Burroughs. “Long after I’m dead and gone, the DuSable Museum will still be here. A lot of Black museums have opened up, but we’re the only one that grew out of the indigenous Black community. We weren’t started by anybody downtown. We were started by ordinary folks.” One of her goals in establishing the museum was to give young African Americans a chance to see themselves in a different light than what many have been taught. The collections of the museum aim to teach the cultural roots of African-Americans and provide young people with a perspective of themselves and their history which emphasizes that they come from a strong, rich heritage that does not only begin with the slave trade.

A prolific artist of many diverse disciplines, Dr. Burroughs’ dynamic block prints for which she is very well-known depict positive and thought-provoking images of African and African-American history, culture and tradition. Even her chosen medium tells us that her interest was in disseminating her work to many, rather than limiting the access of her expressions to those few who might happen upon a single painting or drawing. Dr. Burroughs referred to herself as a “People’s Painter” and her many gifts were used to educate, uplift and inspire others.

As Kem people we understand the great importance of being conscious of this notion of legacy at all times. The Ancestral Spirit lives with and through us and radiates onto every aspect of our existence and it is what we work on our entire lives to pass down to future generations. The legacy of our Ancestors serves as the motivation for our lives and we are responsible for continuing the missions and agendas of our predecessors and instilling this understanding in our descendants. We know that we do not own this blood that runs through our veins. Honoring the legacy of our predecessors and acknowledging the Ancestral Spirit are the most important aspects of our lives as they are responsible for shaping our perceptions, our priorities and determining every decision we make in regard to this lifetime. We work diligently to understand what our Ancestors endeavored to achieve and we know that the very least we can do with our lives is pick up where they have left off.

Dr. Burroughs worked tirelessly to ensure that the work and experiences of past generations would not only be remembered, but would also be accessible and serve to educate and inspire future generations. In doing so she has now been folded into the strong, powerful legacy of the Ancestral Spirit to which we are dedicated to uplift, honor and one day be a part of as well.

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