With his usual eloquence and the words coming straight from his heart, internationally known genealogist Tony Burroughs spoke to a crowd gathered for the dedication ceremony for a mosaic mural at the Burnside Scholastic Academy on June 15, 2014.
The 300-square-foot mural commemorates the 1962 Burnside School parent and student sit-in, a spark that helped ignite the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago. The sit-in was a landmark case in national and local history. It was one of the catalysts that would eventually lead to the signing of the Civil Rights Act fifty years ago today, on July 2, 1964.
For Tony, his mom, and the other parents who were present that day, it is especially significant. It was their personal and family history. They were there. Tony was one of the sit-in students and his mother was one of the organizers.
The mural is dedicated to that historic 1962 sit-in at Burnside. Renowned muralist Carolyn Elaine designed the mosaic with Burnside students and art teacher Sarah Didricksen. Tony purchased and enlarged photos for the mural, the largest one being six feet tall by eight feet wide and students worked together to frame the photo tiles with a brightly colored broken tile mosaic. In preparation of the installation of the mural, Tony conducted workshops with students on Black History and Civil Rights.
The movement to desegregate schools began on January 2, 1962 with a sit-in at Burnside Elementary School. Prompted by the overcrowding at Burnside, the Chicago Board of Education ordered black 7th and 8th grade students to transfer to Gillespie Upper Grade School (a 17-block walk or more for most attending Burnside), rather than integrating the nearby Perry Elementary School which was only a few blocks from Burnside.
Mary Ellen Burroughs, elected president of the PTA during the sit-in, and other Burnside mothers refused to transfer. Leading the sit-in on the first day of classes after the holidays was Alma Coggs who for years had worked to improve education at the school.
On January 16, 1962, the Chicago Board of Education had police arrest the parents for trespassing at Burnside. On January 17, Judge Joseph Butler agreed with the mothers that the schools should be integrated and dismissed their cases. The cases of eight civil rights workers and two parents who had supported the mothers were dismissed the following day.
On January 19 the Burnside parents filed a class action law suit against the Board of Education seeking a restraining order to halt the transfer of students to Gillespie and $500,000 in damages. In 2011, while researching the sit-in at the National Archives at Chicago, Tony Burroughs was shocked to learn that the federal case bore his name as the lead plaintiff in Burroughs v. Board of Education (62 C 206). Although Tony knew about the case, until that day, he never knew it had been named for him.
The parents lost in the lawsuit, but the Burnside Sit-In inspired ministers, civil rights workers from NAACP, Urban League, and Freedom Riders to support the protest. Momentum grew and inspired mothers at other schools to protest. Protests were held in opposition of Willis Wagons, which were temporary mobile classrooms built to relieve overcrowded schools in African American communities.
A citywide school boycott of Chicago Public Schools was held on October 22, 1963. Approximately 250,000 students stayed home. It was the largest school boycott in the country. Dr. Martin Luther King said the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago was the most organized movement in the North.
King came to Chicago in 1965 to support the fight for education and returned in 1966 to fight for housing and jobs. Tony’s mother took him to see King in 1965, the only time he was in Martin Luther King’s presence.
In speaking with me, Tony said, “My mom was not a Civil Rights Worker. She just loved kids, loved people, and loved education. She was merely fighting for her kids and fighting for what she thought was right. She wanted the best for her kids and all the other kids in the community. And, she was willing to put her convictions on the line.”
Tony added, “Historians have said that the PTA mothers were ahead of the Civil Rights Workers. All too often, the men, the ministers, and the Civil Rights Workers get credit for the movement. I wanted to promote this historic event, and the art mural, so the mothers could finally get the recognition and respect they deserve. I am so glad at least three of them are still living so they can get the recognition while they are still here.”
Further, Tony noted, “This sit-in inspired me to fight for injustice, to help other people, and to not believe everything you read in the press. Being a professional genealogist, consultant, lecturer, and an author helps me to fulfill one of those goals, which is helping other people, helping them find their ancestors, and helping some to find their living relatives. Also, learning how the press sometimes distorted our parents’ positions ignited me to develop critical eyes, essential in solving genealogy problems.”
For further information about Tony Burroughs, his book, Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree, and to see a video clip of his presentation at the Burnside dedication, visit www.TonyBurroughs.com. Tony was also featured in this WGN-TV Cover Story about the sit-in.