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New director of Schomburg Center gets his feet wet

CYRIL JOSH BARKER Amsterdam News Staff | 9/16/2011, 10:59 a.m.
New director of Schomburg Center gets his feet wet

When you enter Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad's office at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, it's easy to see that he's been there only a short time. There are empty shelves, very little art on the walls and a desk that has yet to be overwhelmed by the usual office clutter associated with a person of such distinction.

The Black history scholar, who came from Indiana University, has been on the job as director of the Schomberg for a little over a month and half and already has his work cut out for him.

He follows in the illustrious footsteps of Dr. Howard Dodson, who announced his retirement in 2009 after spending over 25 years at the Schomberg. Muhammad has already hit the ground running: In the short time that he has been at what he calls the "Library of Congress for the Black community," his plan to build on the Schomburg's stellar legacy includes putting the center in better reach of young people and broadening horizons for everyone in the Black community.

In a recent interview with the AmNews, Muhammad said that so far, his new position is everything he thought it would be.

The committee that recommended him for the job included Dr. Calvin O. Butts, Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Aysha Schomburg, great-granddaughter of center founder Arturo Schomburg.

"It is what I expected," he said. "The transition was long enough for me to get a sense of the scale of work involved and the scope of responsibility the position involved. The center is just an amazing place in terms of the number of lives it touches, the number of themes that it engages."

Muhammad has also used this time to get better acquainted with the 50 employees that work under him, including librarians, writers, archivists, historians and an administrative staff. One of his first hires was his former colleague Alicia Young, who is in the Schomburg's public affairs division. Young, a former civil rights attorney, attended the Vera Institute of Justice with Muhammad.

His visibility in the community and around the nation is starting to pick up as well. Coming in on the tail end of Harlem's busy summer season, he made appearances at the Harlem Book Fair as well as at a Sept. 11 program for the New York Public Library. He is scheduled to speak in Washington, D.C., at the Congressional Black Caucus, has been in Jet magazine and will be in an upcoming episode of "Our World with Black Enterprise."

As the fifth director in the Schomburg's 85-year history, Muhammad said he wants to put his focus on the youth. He already has plans outlined to engage young people between the ages of 5 and 15, which include building a space at the Schomberg for kids, connecting with youth organizations and getting into schools.

He said, "I want to get to as many Black children in the city as I can. They have to be exposed to that history so they can make use of it in a way that makes the most sense to them. I want to give them a sense of pride but also access to this rich history, which means to inspire them but also empower them to come to the center and begin a lifelong journey of exploration. Oftentimes, it happens to people as adults."