Accessibility links

African American Library in Florida Promotes Cultural Understanding

The South Florida area around the cities of Miami, Ft. Lauderdale and Palm Beach is home to millions of immigrants from around the world. Many of those immigrants are from the Caribbean, and when they moved to South Florida, they joined a large community of African-Americans who have lived in the area since settlers began arriving in the 19th century. Bringing those different cultures together has never been easy, but in the past few years' one institution has taken the lead in promoting cross-cultural understanding, both in the Black community and across South Florida.

A library aid plays an old record of a recording of blues singer Billie Holiday. The recording is just one of 4,000 records donated to the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center by local disc jockey Eric Rollins, who until his recent death was a leading member of the music scene in South Florida.

Mr. Rollin's records will join more than 75,000 other recordings, books, manuscripts, documents and works of art housed in the library, part of one of only three collections in the United States that offers the public easy access to an eclectic collection of African-American history and cultures.

Included in the library are 15,000 rare works housed in a special collection set up for scholars and researchers. Pearl Woolridge, the head of the special collection says members of the local community have been the most enthusiastic users of the collection. "Most people want local history, especially local history on African-American people here, for example, who were the first Blacks in Broward County, anything about Broward County. So, we are hoping to become a real repository for local materials, because we do not really have that many scholarly works on African-American people in Broward County," he says.

Pearl Woolridge says scholars and researchers can also use the library as a resource when it comes to studying and understanding how the various communities of African descent in the area interact with one another. "We are one of the unique places in the country in that you have all the African ethnic groups right here concentrated in three different counties; Miami, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Of course [researchers] are always looking at the interactions between the groups," he says.

Among the artifacts housed in the museum are manuscripts by Alex Haley, the author of Roots, a saga of African-American history published in the 1970's, a golf bag that belonged to Calvin Peete, the first major African-American professional golfer in the United States and brass insignia that belonged to units of the Buffalo Soldiers, African-American Army troops who served in military campaigns from the 19th century Indian Wars in the American West until the Second World War.

The African American Library and Cultural Center was founded by Samuel Morrison, the former head of the Broward County Library System. Mr. Morrison wanted a center that would provide general library services to the community as well as a center for scholarship.

The library which opened in 2002 occupies a more than 5,500 square meter building in a historically black neighborhood of Ft. Lauderdale. Among its resources are a 300-seat auditorium, and a special children's collection. Julie Hunter, the executive director says the library and cultural center is now the focus of the community. "We just use it for everything the community would see and need. And as long as it relates to the mission of this library which is to serve the people with information by and about African-Americans and people of the African Diaspora, I think we are serving our public. This whole idea goes beyond the idea of the African Diaspora, because we also serve our public by meeting their needs in day-to-day living, learning the computer, finding information from the general reference desk, learning about their cultural heritage. For children to have storytelling and learning what is being printed out there. We even have grandparents who have come into read for our children," she says.

More than 300,000 people use the library every year, and many come not to study African-American history but to learn how to use computers and search for jobs. Jenice Baker, a reference librarian runs workshops that teach people practical knowledge about starting businesses. "We try and teach them how to actually start the business. A lot of them do not know what it takes to run a business, so to be successful and prevent the business from going under, these are the workshops that will help you accomplish that and make the business successful," she says.

Jenice Baker and other staff members say the community response to their programs has been overwhelming. Library staff members say they frequently encounter neighbors and other members of the community who tell them how their lives have been changed the by programs and activities offered at the African American Library and Cultural Center.