By ANDREW HOLZMAN
The DuSable Museum of African-American History, 740 E. 56th Pl., commemorated the birthday of its founder, Margaret Burroughs, with a founder’s day event on Sunday, Nov. 11. The celebration, free to the public, included spoken-word presentations, a performance by the Congo Square Theater Company and reflections on Burroughs’ vision and its place in the museum.
Burroughs was a high-school educator, poet and community activist who, in 1961, created a museum of African American history in her home, filled with pieces of art she brought back from trips to Africa. Named after Haitian-born Chicago pioneer Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, the museum moved into a larger space with the help of other prominent community members, but remained devoted to using art and artifacts to paint a fresh picture of African and African American history.
Kwesi Harris, director of the African American Male Resource Center at Chicago State University, began the founder’s day event with a “libation ceremony” rooted in the traditions of diverse African cultures, pouring water into the earth around a potted plant while invoking the names of Africans and African Americans from several centuries.
“If we stand tall today, it is because we stand on someone’s shoulders,” he said.
Harris’ sentiment echoes what some said was Burroughs’ intent in creating the museum.
“Margaret was the first person to get me thinking about Black culturalism beyond white racism,” said David Barr, a researcher and playwright who was mentored by Burroughs in his twenties. “She thought black history could be proactive, as opposed to victimistic.”
Permon Rami, the museum’s director of education, also depicted this link to African history outside America as one goal of the museum.
“Our obligation is to connect the pieces [of African and African American history],” he said. “To move forward, you must move back.”
The museum also presents a clear perspective on American history, using photographs and documents to depict the way Black Americans contributed to social and artistic movements in concert with people from other cultures, which Barr said is the product of Burroughs’ influence.
“She wanted us to be in a macrocosm; she had a larger perspective on the diaspora,” he said.
The event drew people who knew and loved Burroughs for her work outside the museum, and those who had spent time with her highlighted her passion for art-based activism. Volunteer Louis Ringboro, who said he regularly drove Burroughs around Chicago, listed prisons where she taught art and poetry to inmates.
“That was her ministry,” he said.
Another volunteer standing in the lobby passed a petition to put Burroughs’ face on a postage stamp, as a movie played in one of the museum’s galleries explaining her role in establishing other Chicago arts institutions, including the South Side Community Arts Center, 3831 S. Michigan Ave. Barr explained that Burroughs understood the reach of her work, recalling her telling him: “This is my legacy — what’s yours going to be?”
The DuSable Museum today hopes to reach a much broader audience than would have fit in Burroughs’ home. A new website, virtualdusable.com, is set to launch in December, and the museum has already begun using a bus, which travels to locations around the city. Martha O’Kennard-Johnson, president of the DuSable Women’s Board and a close relative of one of the founders, hoped this will help African Americans acquire a rich sense of heritage, saying “you have to know what you are, first of all.”
Admission is always free on Sundays, when the museum is open from noon to 5 p.m. Special rates are available to Chicago residents on other days, when exhibits are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.