Located in Washington Park of the historic Hyde Park area of Chicago, the DuSable Museum of African American History is one of the few independent institutions of its kind in the United States. It is named in honor of Jean-Baptist Point DuSable, a Haitian fur trader of African and French descent, who, in 1779, established a commerce post and permanent settlement which developed into Chicago. The museum, which is Chicago’s primary memorial to DuSable, has as its mission, as per its website, “to promote understanding and inspire appreciation of the achievements, contributions, and experiences of African Americans through exhibits, programs, and activities that illustrate African and African American history, culture and art.”
The DuSable Museum was created to preserve, interpret and promote diverse aspects of people of the Africa Diaspora and is, as stated on the Choose Chicago website, “dedicated is to the collection, documentation, preservation and study of the history and culture of Africans and African Americans.” It is presently an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution.
The history of the DuSable Museum began in the living room of Dr. Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, an artist, educator and art historian, and her husband, Charles Burroughs in 1961. Others, including Marian M. Hadley, Wilberforce Jones, Eugene Feldman, Hammurabi Robb and Gerard Lew, were integral to the Museum’s founding. Chartered on February 16, 1961, it was called the “Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art” and its purpose was to insert Black history and culture that previously had been omitted into educational systems and/or institutions. Upon her passing, the DuSable Museum released a statement and in it, Dr. Burroughs, taking great pride in the museum’s origin, was quoted as saying, “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.”
Initially being a small collection located on the ground floor of the Burroughs’ home at 3806 S. Michigan Drive in Bronzeville, the museum was located across the street from the South Side Community Arts Center. Prior to the Burroughs’ purchase of the home, contractor John Griffin resided there; it was later converted into the Quincy Club and after, a boarding home for railroad workers.
The location of the museum and the center was integral to the growth of both. Under the direction of the Federal Art Project from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the South Side Community Arts Center opened in 1940, making it the first Black art museum in America. It was created to provide a space for Black artists who were limited in, or even excluded from, having their work exhibited. Both institutions were critical to the development of Black artists, most significantly those in Chicago. The South Side Community Arts Center has been designated as a Chicago Landmark (1994), a “National Treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation (2017) and listed on the National Register of Historic Places (2018). It should be noted that it is the only community arts center, of 100-plus centers established by the WPA, still open today.
Dr. Burroughs, as a co-founder of the South Side Community Arts Center, greatly enhanced the Black culture connection in the Chicago, arts and education communities. In 1968, the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art changed its name to the DuSable Museum of African American History. In 1973, the DuSable moved to its present location at 740 E. 56th Place. Formerly an administration building of the Government of Chicago and a lockup facility for the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Park District granted the request of the museum to use it for its new site and donated the building. This site on 56th Place and the former site, the Burroughs’ home on S. Michigan, are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The home, like the South Side Community Arts Center, is also designated as a Chicago landmark.
A center for community outreach, the museum has educational programming, curatorial sessions; lectures and discussions, special exhibitions and fundraisers. The museum also has been a hub of Black social and political activism. In 1993, the DuSable added a new wing dedicated to Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago. This 25, 000 square feet extension, which includes additional space for exhibition and a theatre that seats 466, contains more than 150 artifacts, campaign memorabilia and archival footage of Washington. In this wing is also an animatronic version of Harold Washington. “He” is seated at his desk that he used in Springfield, Illinois, when he served in the House of Representatives. Guests can “hear” Washington discussing the history of Chicago leading up to and during his tenure as mayor. The election of Harold Washington in such a racially- and ethnically-polarized city as Chicago was the foundation for another Black politician of Chicago to ascend to the highest political position in the United States: that man would be President Barack Obama.
Today, the DuSable Museum of African American History is the oldest museum of Black culture in the United States and, according to the museum’s website, “the only major independent institution in Chicago established to preserve and interpret the historical experiences and achievements of African-Americans.” The museum has become an essential and viable repository of Black culture, arts, education and history.
One of its greatest assets has been its ability and desire to adapt to changing times and interests of the Black community. Since its inception, it has grown from being headquartered in the living room of a private home into an institution that contains an impressive 50, 000 square feet of exhibition space and currently holds greater than 15, 000 pieces. This extensive collection, strongly supported by private donations, includes artifacts, books, memorabilia, paintings, prints, primary documents, sculptures and textile arts. Specific examples of holdings in the DuSable Museum’s collection include writings of poet, Langston Hughes; the violin of writer, Paul Laurence Dunbar; the desk of activist, Ida B. Wells; the papers of scholar and sociologist, W.E.B. DuBois; and art of Archibald Motley, Charles White, Richmond Barthé, and Romare Bearden. It also includes periodicals and recordings of the 20th century, including the Black Arts movement, and contemporary times. You may also undertake research at the Drs. Charles V. and Dona C. Hamilton Institute for Research and Civic Involvement Reading Room and Library.
On the grounds, realistic and abstract stone sculptures created by the Shona people of Zimbabwe greet you. The greetings continue as, upon entry, colorful and intricate mosaics of the museum’s founders as well as Jean-Baptiste Point DuSable and Harold Washington welcome you. The mosaics were created by Thomas Miller, an African-American artist of Chicago. Visitors can experience guided or self-guided tours and purchase items, gifts and mementos from the museum store. They may actively support the Roundhouse Project, a 61,000 square foot expansion to be completed, thus, creating the first African American museum campus in the United States. Stated on the museum’s website, the Roundhouse “has humble beginnings. Built in the early 19th century by visionary architect Daniel H. Burnham, the building originally acted as a horse stable. Burnham supervised the layout of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and, in 1909, with help from his assistant, prepared The Plan for Chicago, one of the nation’s first comprehensive planning documents.”
Guests to the museum may become involved in a community event such as a performance by jazz or blues musicians, a reading of poetry or a screening of a film. They could also be inspired by an art exhibit, whether it be a temporary exhibit, such as The Love Affair Continues and Troublemaker, or one of its permanent exhibits: Africa Speaks; Paintings/Drawings/Sculptures: Masterpieces from the DuSable Museum Collection; Red, White, Blue & Black: A History of Blacks in the Armed Forces and A Slow Walk to Greatness: The Harold Washington Story.
Whatever you decide to experience, it is clear that you will be actively engaged at the DuSable Museum of African American History!