Tony Burroughs has worked as a self-employed genealogist for thirty years, tracking down people’s lost relatives. A self-described “child of the sixties,” Burroughs witnessed seminal moments of black history in Chicago; he participated in the Burnside Elementary School sit-in in 1962 and saw Martin Luther King Jr. speak in 1965. He is currently working on a project to memorialize the Burnside sit-in, as well as a larger plan to build the Center for Black Genealogy on the South Side.
Editor’s note: Burroughs refers to his experiences with racism in the following interview, including racial slurs, and his words have not been censored.
In December of 1961, Burnside School was overcrowded. There were a lot of blacks who were migrating to the South Side, so the schools were overcrowded. There was another school not far from us that was all white. So instead of integrating that school to relieve the overcrowding, they built an addition on another school, Gillespie School, where we had to walk seventeen blocks to get there. Instead of integrating that other white school, Perry School, which was only a few blocks away.
Our parents said, “No, we’re not going.” So we had a sit-in in January of 1962. This was organized by PTA mothers. They were inspired by the sit-ins in Greensboro and all throughout the south, at Woolworth’s lunch counters and whatever, in Nashville, Greensboro, all throughout the south. And so after they had the sit-in, the ministers came out in support and picketed the school. They inspired civil rights workers; they came out in support of the school. They inspired other schools to start picketing and boycotting and protesting against the overcrowded schools. The parents got arrested and they got thrown in jail. Once they got thrown in jail, the judge agreed with the parents, and said that the schools should be integrated. So the judge let them out. The parents filed suit against the school board. They lost the suit, so we had to transfer to that other school.
Being involved in that sit-in when I was in seventh grade started a spark, you know, to make me politically aware. I knew that there was a struggle between us and the Board of Education, between us and the mayor. I knew it was a struggle between black folks and white folks, I knew we were being disrespected. I knew that we were being taken advantage of. It just made an impact on me, and I guess after that it fueled my interest to know a lot more about black history and about Chicago history, and also to be a part of the struggle of oppressed people.
It was something that was very significant in my life, in my mother’s life. When I was preparing for the fiftieth anniversary of that, doing some research on it, I found it was the spark that led to the Civil Rights Movement in Chicago, because that was the first activist demonstration to desegregate Chicago Public Schools. And later on, in 1963 there was a citywide boycott where 250,000 blacks stayed out of school, and then eventually it led a couple years later to Martin Luther King Jr. coming into Chicago.
When people talk about King in Chicago, they mainly talk about 1966, when he lived on the West Side and when he got rocks thrown at him in Gage Park. This was the year before, which nobody talks about. He visited a dozen different sites. One was at 85th and King Drive, which was called South Park at the time. And my mom took me there to see him. It was the only time I saw him…alive.
And it was very fulfilling to actually see him in person. I was thrilled that he was here to support us in the fight for education. And knowing that we were involved in the sit-in, and we were fighting for education. For Martin Luther King Jr., the largest figure in the movement, to come to Chicago to support us was really just awesome. It’s just hard to describe. And the park was just filled to capacity. Cars were like double-parked. We all got tickets for being double-parked and the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] picked up all the tickets and paid for them.
There were a couple things before then from which I got a taste of racism. For example, when I was eleven, we were playing baseball in an alley, and I did a headfirst slide and went into a piece of glass, and I cut my hand right there. [Shows hand. It is riddled with scars down to the base of his arm.] And I almost lost these four fingers. We were living on 93rd and Burnside, about a block north of where Chicago State University is. My mom and dad took me to the hospital, and we went up there and showed them my hand, and they said, “We don’t serve the n-word up here.” You know.
So we had to leave there, drive from 95th and Cottage Grove to 111th and Michigan, to Roseland Hospital. That was an all-white community. We went up to the ER and they took some gauze and wrapped it around my hand two times. “We don’t serve niggers up in here.” So we had to leave there, drive all the way up to University of Chicago Hospital, where they did allow “negroes” [puts hands in quotation marks] to be served. And I was in emergency surgery for three hours. They had to go up and grab the tendons, bring them down and tie them together. I was in emergency surgery for three hours. I look at that scar every day and I think about racism in Chicago.
Black folks have always wanted to work for improvement. They wanted better jobs, they wanted better education, they wanted to make more money, they wanted to have better homes, and they just wanted to move up on the ladder. That’s one of the reasons they started moving south: to have better homes. They used to have better homes on the South Side of Chicago. But once they did that, and white folks moved out, then all of a sudden city services stopped. More poor people came in, so those middle class blacks started leaving the South Side, going to the suburbs. It seems to be this large continuum of movement and economic decline once all the businesses moved out, because all up and down here on the South Side you had the steel mills, automotive manufacturing.
I remember when I was a kid I went to get a job over on 22nd Street. I was working there about an hour and I asked the guy how much we made. When he told me how much we made, I went and quit after an hour. I got another job that afternoon! You could get jobs like crazy! All those jobs are gone now. So with the jobs being gone, that has affected the community tremendously. That affects people’s income, their housing, and their civil rights.
In terms of the school system, you know, the school system has never been right.
We had a school in our neighborhood, and our parents fought for that school in our neighborhood. You don’t have that now. People who have economic power, who have intellectual capital, they send their kids out of the community. They go to the North Side, they go to the suburbs, they send their kids to magnet schools or private schools, and then in the neighborhood schools they have lower economic ability and lower educational ability, plus the parents have less political power, less intellectual capital. So they can’t really fight for their schools, you know. The people that should be fighting—they left.
I had a neighbor who’s in fifth grade. We used to play checkers all the time. He used to come by and he would bring his report card. I said, “Eddie, what happened with your report card?” He went, “Well, I flunked history.” I said, “Well Eddie, why’d you flunk history?” I asked why, he said, “They not talking about us, they talking about white folks.” He had internalized that at fifth grade. So he’s being turned off because the teachers had not used their creativity to include how he’s a part of history, and how his ancestors and community are a part of history. They’re just going through something, probably some textbooks that are like thirty years old, and are teaching something that’s very bland. On the other side of the spectrum, I had an ancestor who was a Buffalo soldier. I shared that with my cousin, and he shared it with his daughter. And she went to school, “My great-great grandfather was a Buffalo soldier!” And now she’s into genealogy!
My work in genealogy is related in a sense because I’m teaching people how to find their ancestors, but I’m also teaching them black history. In order to find and be successful in tracing family history, you have to place your ancestors into a historical context. So you have to know that history – not only black history but American history. And we just don’t have a strong foundation in that. Even today they don’t teach black history in schools. And what they teach is very little. They teach “Martin had a dream” and “Rosa didn’t wanna get off the bus.” You know! [Uproarious laughter] That’s about all they teach.
Our ancestors were involved in history throughout. We might not have been president, we might not have been a colonel or general, but we were privates, we were corporals, we were bricklayers. And we played some kind of role in that. So what role did everybody else play? And what role did your ancestors play in that?
When we came up in the sixties, we thought there was a problem of education. Particularly political education. We thought that certain people act certain ways because they don’t know any better. They’re uneducated. If you educate people as to what is right and what is wrong, what is historical, what is a historical fact, what is economic injustice, then people will understand that and they can turn around and they do things different. But when you have people that don’t analyze, and don’t think, and regurgitate what their leaders think, to me that says you can’t educate people. That’s a very scary situation.