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Library renamed the Harry Belafonte 115th Street Library

Herb Boyd | 5/11/2017, 11:22 a.m.
“I lived on 114th Street and Manhattan Avenue,” Harry Belafonte said toward the end of his 20-minute speech at the ...
Manhattan Brough President Gale Brewer, Pamela Frank, Harry Belafonte, Cicely Tyson, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Chirlane McCray, Congressman Adriano Espaillat and City Council Member Bill Perkins Terrence Jennings

“I lived on 114th Street and Manhattan Avenue,” Harry Belafonte said toward the end of his 20-minute speech at the 115th Street Library. “This library helped shape who I am.” That library now bears his name, and a coterie of dignitaries, including Mayor de Blasio, were there for the renaming ceremony Monday afternoon.

Belafonte, 90, cited several times another city library, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It was in the basement there, he said, that he began a lifelong friendship with Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier, all of whom introduced him to the world of theater.

And many of those in attendance knew this story as well as Belafonte’s relationship and admiration for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Paul Robeson, “who inspired me to speak truth to power,” Belafonte said.

“I have personally drawn inspiration from Mr. Belafonte’s unbroken commitment to making the world a better place, which he has carried with him since childhood,” the mayor said, serving as a kind of moderator for the event. “As a native New Yorker of Caribbean descent, he is also a living testament to how immigrants like his parents help make this the greatest city in the world.”

When First Lady Chirlane McCray addressed the crowded room, she touched on a theme that Belafonte would emphasize later of his being “an activist before he was an artist.” She said he was “an exemplary standard of service for today’s artists. The ‘King of Calypso’ captured audiences with his soothing melodies but never shied away from the more daunting task of fighting injustice.”

Her commitments and accolades were echoed by NYPL President Tony Marx and a number of elected officials. Rep. Adriano Espaillat recalled how Belafonte’s music was influential in his family learning English; Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, like the first lady, thoughtfully conflated Belafonte’s fight for social justice with his remarkable achievements as an artist.

Councilman Bill Perkins went a word or two further, vocalizing “Day-O,” one of Belafonte’s signature songs, before offering his own tribute to the freedom fighter. There were greetings from Council members Jimmy Van Bramer and Inez Dickens.

In attendance, as well, was Councilmember Andy King and former Congressman Charles Rangel, who Belafonte singled out for special praise and for his undying support over the years.

Belafonte brought the moment full circle, noting the importance of libraries for our children, and if this one under his name and the others do as well for them as they did for him, we can expect at least a semblance of the success they bestowed on Belafonte.