An Excerpt From “South Side Venus: The Legacy of Margaret Burroughs”

"South Side Venus" cover

Today, we’re pleased to publish an excerpt from Mary Ann Cain’s new book South Side Venus: The Legacy of Margaret Burroughs. Its publisher, Northwestern University Press, gives readers a sense of what to expect: “The extraordinarily productive life of curator, artist, and activist Margaret Burroughs was largely rooted in her work to establish and sustain two significant institutions in Chicago: the South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC), founded in 1940, and the DuSable Museum of African American History, founded in her living room in 1961.” Cain’s book is the first full-length biography of Burroughs, and draws on extensive research as well as the author’s conversations with Burroughs herself.


As the intense August sun continued its assault, Dr. B suggested an additional destination, in part to cool off, but also to view another landmark, one that was not on my tour list. We made our way back down King Drive, recrossing the Bronzeville Walk of Fame, with the Lake Meadows apartments beckoning us from our shaded path. As we approached Thirty- Fifth Street, I noticed that the Chicago Public Library branch, like the boulevard we traversed, was named after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This was yet another sign of how Bronzeville, guided by people such as Dr. B, had made important strides toward historical preservation while keeping the memory of such greats as King alive in a palpable way.

Dr. B’s pace did not lag; in fact, she seemed even more resolute and purposeful in her stride. Fortunately, we were not stopped by further admirers in our quest for relief from the sun and the sweltering humidity. Yet as we crossed King Drive so that I could take a photo of the library’s sign, we were greeted yet again, this time by a woman in a car at the stoplight at Thirty- Fifth Street. Then from still another vehicle, two other, younger women drew our attention. One held a book out the open passenger window while the other waved her arms to draw Dr. B’s notice.

“Dr. B, Dr. B, I got your book!” one cried out.

I can’t recall how Dr. B reacted, or if she even did, intent as she was on simply getting across that wide boulevard in one piece. Once safely on the other side, however, she explained to me that her autobiography, Life with Margaret, had just been published. She recommended that I might want to read it for further information.

As I wiped sweat from my forehead, I thought that this was quintessential Dr. B. She got us across the street without stopping to bask in the praise and then offered yet another resource for my research without ego attachment. She simply wanted to be of use to those she encountered, for the sake of her people and her community, here and around the world.

After taking my library photo, we crossed Thirty- Fifth Street and walked down to Meyers Ace Hardware. Although I was a little confused about Dr. B’s plans for our destination, given the fast food venues nearby that would more likely provide us with the necessary refreshment, I trusted that Dr. B knew what she was doing. Meyers Ace Hardware is an unremarkable two-story brick building painted with the store’s logo on the side. A circa-1960s sign juts out from the building’s street side. The storefront windows were jammed with various and sundry items one might need for home repair, along with signs touting store specials. As we entered the cooler clime inside, I was struck by the narrow aisles and overflowing shelves of an old-time urban neighborhood business. Still, this hardly seemed the place for cool refreshment. Plungers they had in excess, but nary a hint of a soda machine or water fountain. I was hardly one to question Dr. B, but the heat and my growing thirst continued to challenge my patience.

It did not take long for Dr. B’s logic to make itself known. As we stood at the front of the store, a man close to my own age, perhaps slightly older, approached to greet us, or should I say, Dr. B.

“Good to see you, Dr. Burroughs,” he said and shook her hand. “What brings you here?”

“This young lady”— she pointed at me— “wants to see your historic landmark here.”

The man turned to me. “David Meyers.” He shook my hand, too.

“So this is a landmark of— ?” I asked.

“My father bought this building in 1960 from Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager. It started as the Sunset Club and then became the Grand Terrace.”

“A speakeasy?” I’d read a fair amount about Chicago’s nightclubs, jazz and blues legacies, and the people who frequented them. I was hopeful I’d stumbled upon the real deal.

“It was a black and tan nightclub. Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Fatha Earl Hines, lots of these musicians played here early on.” He paused, looking around the store. “Just a minute. Let me take care of something and then I’ll show you the bandstand with the original mural in the back. Can I bring you ladies a cold drink?”

Dr. B stood, patient as usual, while David Meyers settled his business elsewhere in the store. The cool air dried my face and arms. I scanned the shelves for signs of items other than the expected ones, looking for something by way of a souvenir. No such luck. Nothing camera- worthy, either, only displays such as quart-sized plastic drinking cups with lids and straws sporting Scooby- Doo’s Great Dane grin.

David returned with lemonade in hand. I couldn’t help but think that had I been alone, I would not have received this level of hospitality. Bronzeville certainly held this elder in highest esteem.

The Sunset Club was known as a “black and tan,” one of the few types of places where blacks and whites could mingle together socially. The building’s exterior had been remodeled when it became the Grand Terrace, though scant evidence of its once ornate entry remained. Glass bricks on the second floor hinted at an Art Deco design that the store sign’s bold red-and- white typeface echoed, a respectfully tasteful marker overshadowing those large picture windows packed with merchandise

David Meyers led us through the narrow aisles to the back of the store. “Tourists come in from all over the world,” he said. Pointing to the black plungers on one shelf, he offered, “A group of German tourists came through. They all bought plungers! One of them hugged the pillar”— he pointed to a plain white square pole in the middle of the aisle— “and cried. The BBC filmed here.” My puzzled look may have prompted more explanation: “Maybe the plungers looked like trumpet mutes! They asked us to autograph them.” He smiled and nodded his head, clearly relishing the anecdote.

“And the pillars?”

“Like hugging their idols.”

David found Dr. B a comfortable chair and then shepherded me into the nether regions of the business. David apologized yet again for the mess. “Home Depot is building across the street soon,” he said ruefully. Would Meyers Ace Hardware survive, I wondered?

Apparently, Dr. B did not require another tour, instead taking the time to rest. Would Dr. B have frequented this club back in its heyday? Had she listened to some of her beloved jazz greats here in person? But then, as a young woman, starving artist, and later mother and wife, would she have had the means to patronize an apparently luxurious club such as this one? One ticket in may have been through the reviews of musical acts she wrote for the Associated Negro Press. On the store’s walls, photos and sketches of the Grand Terrace revealed a classy white- tablecloth café where women wore gowns and men wore black suits and ties. The plain pillar we had just navigated past had once been ornately decorated. Was this the kind of place Dr. B would have favored?

At the very back of the store, raised up about a foot, stood the old bandstand. David Meyers pointed out two staircases, one on either side of the stage, which led to the second floor. “Blocked off for security,” he said. Back then, the stairs had led to practice rooms and restrooms. The dressing rooms may also have served multiple, unseemly purposes for the likes of sexual rendezvous, prostitution, and gambling.

The store’s office had been built on the bandstand. David escorted me inside. Here were original murals from the club on the very back wall of the office, visible through steel shelves crammed with supplies. Suddenly the colors, shapes, and by extension, the sounds and flavors of the club leaped forth. In one mural, a tan woman with large clawed hands and feet, wearing only a tiger-striped loincloth, gripped a wide white drumhead reminiscent of African drums in one hand and a padded drum stick in the other. Her downcast eyes focused intently on her instrument like a tiger on its prey. Her bare thighs straddled the round drum eagerly, even playfully. Above the loincloth, her naked chest was small and muscular, her midsection taut and strong. The loincloth drooped below her waist like a tail. It echoed the curved lines of a white, U-shaped hand harp floating in the auburn spaces of the background behind her. The bold black outlines and dynamic, almost free-form shapes of the mural recalled aspects of both African and modernist art. Later I would see that same harp in a Picasso sketch from around the same period.

The style of the mural surprised me. The Grand Terrace had been all classical elegance, gowns and suits, and palm-tree ease. The mural spoke in much rawer, more animated tones.

To the right, another figure, with lighter skin tones and white hands that looked almost gloved, played with pursed lips on some indistinguishable instrument loosely held like a pole. Another, horizontal drum-like object, similar to a West African dunun, stood below. This was one cool cat, dressed in a black-lapelled jacket, with a side part and smooth hair. With eyes closed, his lips puckered like a kiss around the instrument’s reed. Cool meets hot. Cool tones meet hot licks. Red, yellow, black, tan—all the calculus of a masterful painterly eye.

I should have asked Dr. B if she had known the muralist. She likely had.

“The City of Chicago made this building a landmark,” David said. “If we got rid of this mural, we would pay $5,000 a day penalty.”

“Pretty steep price to destroy history,” I replied.

After I took photos, David ushered me behind the bandstand, where the former kitchen had stood. He pointed out an old iron rotisserie; overhead, the pressed tin panels of the original ceiling added an unexpectedly ornamental air to the otherwise dim back of the store. Then he led me up a sounder staircase to the second floor. A hand-printed menu of much simpler fare than that suggested by the rotisserie greeted us on the wall: 25¢ ham sandwich coca cola checkroom gin vodka bourbon scotch beer declared this fragile paper sign in bold capitals. Below in lighter print: orange- lime- soda or ginger ale with drinks. It seemed that a second, back-room operation had catered to simpler tastes.

We walked up to a chalk board painted in white lines.

“A policy board?” I asked. Policy was Bronzeville’s version of the numbers game.

“More like a voting tally. Aldermen used to come on election nights. For a while, after the nightclub, this was a political center.”

I squinted at the small, hand- printed letters. Words such as “Ward,” “Precinct Capt.,” and “No.” came into view. So the local pols had made a headquarters here, in the upper realms, among the dressing rooms and all their goings on, probably drinking and smoking and wheeling and dealing. There were even ladies’ and men’s room signs to serve this shadowy patronage.

Downstairs, Dr. B sat patiently, taking in the moment. She rose upon seeing us. As we thanked David Meyers for his personal tour, Dr. B nudged me, and pointing to the display of Scooby-Doo travel cups, she suggested that I purchase two of them. And so I did. 

I kept that cup until it cracked and fell apart, long after Dr. B’s body had given out and cancer had taken her from this life. I’d like to think that she kept her cup, too. But most likely she gave it to someone else, a child perhaps, who would need it more.

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