Burroughs was born Victoria Margaret Taylor in St. Rose, Louisiana, and by the time she was five years old the family had moved to Chicago. There she attended Englewood High School along with Gwendolyn Brooks, who in 1985-1986 served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (now United States Poet Laureate). As classmates, the two joined the NAACP Youth Council. She earned teacher’s certificates from Chicago Teachers College in 1937. She helped found the South Side Community Arts Center in 1939 to serve as a social center, gallery, and studio to showcase African American artists. In 1946, Taylor-Burroughs earned a Bachelor’s of Art in Art Education from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she also earned her Master’s of Art in art education in 1948. Taylor-Burroughs married the artist Bernard Goss (1913–1966) in 1939, and they divorced in 1947. In 1949 she married Charles Gordon Burroughs, and they had been married for forty-five years at the time he died in 1994.
Taylor-Burroughs taught at DuSable High School from 1946 to 1969, and from 1969 to 1979 was a professor of humanities at Kennedy-King College, a community college in Chicago. She also taught African American Art and Culture at Elmhurst College in 1968. She was named Chicago Park District Commissioner by Harold Washington in 1985, a position she held until 2010.
She died on November 21, 2010.
Margaret and her husband Charles co-founded what is now called the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago in 1961. The institution was originally known as the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art and made its debut in the living room of their house at 3806 S. Michigan Avenue in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, and Taylor-Burroughs served as its executive director for the first ten years of its existence. She was proud of the institution’s grass-roots beginnings: “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.” Burroughs served as Executive Director until 1984 and was then named Director Emeritus, remaining active in the museum’s operations and fundraising efforts.
The museum moved to its current location at 740 E. 56th Place in Washington Park in 1973, and today is the oldest museum of black culture in the United States. Both the current museum building, and the Burroughs’ S. Michigan Avenue home are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Margaret Burroughs has created many of her own works of art as well. In one of Burroughs’ linocuts, “Birthday Party,” both black and white children are seen celebrating. The black and white children are not isolated from each other; instead they are intermixed and mingling around the table together waiting for birthday cake. An article published by The Art Institute of Chicago described Burroughs’ “Birthday Party and said, “Through her career, as both a visual artist and a writer, she has often chosen themes concerning family, community, and history. ‘Art is communication,’ she has said. ‘I wish my art to speak not only for my people – but for all humanity.’ This aim is achieved in Birthday Party, in which both black and white children dance, while mothers cut cake in a quintessential image of neighbors and family enjoying a special day together”.
Burroughs was impacted by Harriet Tubman, Gerard L. Lew, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and W.E.B. Du Bois. In Eugene Feldman’s “The Birth and Building of the DuSable Museum” he writes about the influence Du Bois had on Burroughs’ life. Feldman believes that Burroughs greatly admired Du Bois and writes that she campaigned to bring him to Chicago to lecture to audiences. Feldman wrote, “If we read about ‘cannabalistic and primitive Africa,’…It is a deliberate effort to put down a whole people and Dr. Du Bois fought this… Dr. Burroughs saw Dr. Du Bois and what he stood for and how he suffered himself to attain exposure of his views. She identified entirely with this important effort.” Therefore, Burroughs clearly believed in Dr. Du Bois and the power of his message.
In many of Burroughs’ pieces, she depicts people with half black and half white faces. In “The Faces of My People” Burroughs carved five people staring at the viewer. One of the women is all black, three of the people are half black and half white and one is mostly white. While Burroughs is attempting to blend together the black and white communities, she also shows the barriers that stop the communities from uniting. None of the people in “The Faces of My People” are looking at each other, and this implies a sense of disconnect among them. On another level, “The Faces of My People deals with diversity. An article from “The Collector Magazine” website describes Burroughs’ attempts to unify in the picture. The article says, “Burroughs sees her art as a catalyst for bringing people together. This tableau of diverse individuals illustrates her commitment to mutual respect and understanding”.
Burroughs once again depicts faces that are half black and half white in “My People.” Even though the title is similar to the last piece, the woodcut has some differences. In this scene, there are four different faces – each of which is half white and half black. The head on the far left is tilted to the side and close to the head next to it. It seems as both heads are coming out of the same body – taking the idea of split personalities to the extreme. The women are all very close together, suggesting that they relate to each other. In “The Faces of My People” there were others pictured with different skin tones, but in “My People” all of the people have the same half black and half white split. Therefore, “My People” focuses on a common conflict that all the women in the picture face.