America’s Oldest Museum of Black Culture Started in a Living Room

The DuSable Museum of African American History was founded by Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, born on this day in 1915

The DuSable Museum was originally located in the main floor parlor of this house. Wikimedia Commons

Today, the DuSable Museum of African American History is a Chicago landmark. In 1961, it was started in the living room of Margaret Taylor-Burroughs.

Born on this day in 1915, Taylor-Burroughs started what was then called the Ebony Museum of Negro History in the downstairs of her house with a group of other concerned citizens and her husband, Charles Burroughs. The museum, which is the oldest independently owned museum of black culture in the United States, was created to preserve, study and teach black history and art.

She was extremely qualified for the job as a longtime teacher, artist and public historian. Taylor-Burroughs, who died in 2010, described how she founded the museum and its early years in an interview with public historian John E. Fleming in 1999.  

“We collected various things and when people heard what we were doing they had various things, and they brought them, and we cleared all of the furniture out of the first-floor parlor for the museum,” she said.

In the beginning, the small museum taught classes on how to teach black history, she said. Students started visiting. By 1973, the museum needed more space and moved into its current digs within Washington Park. Today, it's a Smithsonian affiliate, and its collections include a significant collection of 19th and 20th century works by African-American artists, such as the Freedom Mural and historical artifacts like this quilt cover made in 1900, as well as an archives.

Its name also changed. Taylor-Burroughs said that the word “Ebony” was removed from the name partly because it was the name of Ebony Magazine, which was headquartered nearby. In time, it took on the name DuSable after Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, who was Chicago’s first non-indigenous settler according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago. DuSable was an Afro-French fur trader, the encyclopedia writes.

The DuSable quickly became a resource for teaching African American history and culture and a focal point in Chicago for black social activism,” writes the encyclopedia, “particularly because of limited cultural resources then available to Chicago's large black population. Through the years, the museum has served as nerve center for political fundraisers, community festivals, and social and civic events serving the black community.”    

The Ebony Museum was one of a number of “neighbourhood museums” dealing with black history that were founded in the United States in the 1960s, writes historian Andrea A. Burns.  

“While battling often adverse conditions, the leaders of these institutions elevated the recognition of black history and culture, provided space for community gatherings, and attempted to develop a strong sense of identity and self-affirmation among African-American audiences,” she writes.  

“We weren’t started by anybody downtown; we were started by ordinary folks,” Taylor-Burroughs said about the DuSable.