Born out of the personal collection of Puerto Rican-born Black scholar and bibliophile Arturo Alfonso Schomburg in 1926, a research center on Black culture was created in Harlem as part of the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library’s collection on Negro literature, history and prints.
Schomburg became the curator of the collection in 1932 and continued in that position until 1938 when he died. The center was renamed in his honor in 1940.
In the early 1970s, the Schomburg was designated as one of the Research Libraries of The New York Public Library and became the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In 1984, Howard Dodson became the director. During his tenure, the collection grew from 5 million to 10 million items.
Dodson, born in Chester, Pennsylvania, dedicated his life to education and research and has spent the last 26 years preserving the history of our community and our people through his leadership at the Schomburg. But now as his retirement looms, it’s not clear what will happen to this beloved Harlem institution in the not-too-distant future.
Many people believe that the Schomburg collection will be cut up and distributed among the NYC branches of the library or sent to another research library outside the Black community. This is an outrage. No one would suggest that we gut the great collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim or MOMA. Why should our great cultural collection be at risk? The collection, in its entirety, belongs in Harlem at the Schomburg, where it was been born and cultivated. It is not the NYPL that has made the Schomburg what it is today. It has been the Black people of the community–the scholars and the activists whose papers reside in the hallowed hall that make it what it is: a mecca for our culture.
From the mouth of Congressman Charles B. Rangel: “It’s all we’ve got…They’ve taken so much of our history and culture, but this is ours and we must fight to keep it.”
The congressman is right. The Schomburg is ours, and we must ensure that it and its legacy stay in our community. We have lost so much. Our history has been manipulated, coerced, bastardized and erased. We can’t let that happen once again.
A committee has been formed by the New York Public Library to find a replacement for Dodson, and chairing that committee is Dr. Henry Louis Gates. While we respect Dr. Gates, we wonder if he is the best person to do a search for a replacement for Dodson. While Gates has a strong reputation as a scholar of Black history, he has no real long-term connection to the Harlem community or the Schomburg Center as an institution. Couldn’t the New York Public Library find a scholar who has been closer to the institution and the community, or is it simply because Gates and NY Public Library chief Paul LeClerc travel in the same circles? Or perhaps LeClerc and his colleagues at the New York Public Library have too narrow an intersection with our community. Gates has lived his life and done his work in Boston. We do not see him as being particularly aware of the specific nuances of New York’s Black community and the place that the Schomburg has played within it.
The Schomburg is our legacy. It is the place where our history will be told on our terms to our children and their children. IF we let it go, we have let go of any hope of preserving our past and allowing future generations the opportunity to learn from it at the same time. While we understand that Howard Dodson must move on to his next adventure in life, we hope he will help to shape the future of the Schomburg’s leadership to ensure that the fight continues to preserve out legacy.
Save the Schomburg! Save our history!