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Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad to head the Schomburg Center

Herb Boyd | 4/12/2011, 5:31 p.m.

Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a scholar of African-American history from Indiana University, has been named the new director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

There were more than 200 nominees or scholars seeking the position since the announcement that Dr. Howard Dodson, Jr. would retire from the position next year. Dr. Muhammad, who is the son of the noted New York Times photographer Ozier Muhammad and the great-grandson of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, assumes the position next July.

"I am extremely excited to be selected to fill this prestigious position," Dr. Muhammad said in an interview Wednesday afternoon at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity and I hope I can fulfill the legacy left by Dr. Dodson."

Over the last several months the Schomburg Center has been mired in rumors that the center was imperiled and ever more so upon the notice that Dr. Dodson would no longer be at the helm. Furthermore, there was an outcry from the community with the demand that Dr. Molefi Asante of Temple University be appointed the new director.

"Yes, I am well aware of all the controversy and the first thing I want to do is to secure the trust of the community and the staff here at this historic institution," Dr. Muhammad said. "This position affords me a national platform to contribute to conversations and even policy debates on issues pertaining to the arts and culture."

A native of Chicago, Dr. Muhammad served as assistant professor of history at Indiana University for five years, where he completed a major scholarly work The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Harvard University Press, 2010).

According to Dr. David Levering Lewis, who nominated Dr. Muhammad for the position, the new director's book "renders an incalculable service to civil rights scholarship by disrupting one of the nation's most insidious, convenient, and resilient explanatory loops: whites commit crimes, but black males are criminals."

"I am currently working a book that will deal with the history of racial politics surrounding the creation and swift dissolution of Prohibition-era 'tough-on-crime' laws, specifically New York's four-strikes law of 1926," he said.

When asked about some of his immediate plans, Dr. Muhammad said he would devote time and attention to some of the programs already underway at the Schomburg and initiated by Dr. Dodson. "I certainly will continue his thrust into digital technologies, particularly as we reach out to the younger members of our community."

At 38, Dr. Muhammad, who grew up on the Southside of Chicago, is vitally in touch with the mood, attitude and aspirations of many in the Black and Latino community. A 1993 graduate of University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in economics, he received his Ph.D. in American history from Rutgers University in 2004, specializing in 20th century U.S. and African American history.

"I know that his career at the Schomburg Center will be one of excellence and innovation," said Dr. Paul LeClerc, president of the NYPL.

Dr. Muhammad, who is married with three children, said that he will be convening a town hall meeting to get to know the community and for the community to get to know him.

"There has never been a more exciting time in the history of the Schomburg Center," said search committee member Aysha Schomburg, great-granddaughter of Arturo Schomburg, the center's founder. "Without any doubt, Khalil has the skills and the passion to build on the legacy. This is a great day for New York and especially for Harlem. We welcome him."