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Africa's Influence Documented at New York's Schomberg Center - 2002-10-26

For 75 years, the Schomburg Center in the Harlem section of New York City has been collecting, preserving and providing access to resources documenting the experience of peoples of African descent throughout the world.

In 1926, when Puerto Rican born Black scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg gave his personal collection of books, pictures and manuscripts on black culture to the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library in Harlem, he laid the foundation for the institution that would one day bear his name. Although he became curator of the Library's Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints in 1932, it was not until two years after his death in 1940 that it became the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

The Schomburg expansive collection of art objects, audio and video material, letters, photos and periodicals documents the black experience in the United States, in Africa, and throughout the world. The Center's Assistant Director, Roberta Yancy, says that because that experience has been so fraught with hardship and oppression, a visit to the Schomburg tends to be more than just another trip to a museum.

"We're touching on topics that haven't always been available for people in schools as they've been growing up," she explains. "It's going into black history and culture with a kind of depth that often creates a very emotional experience for people as they're visiting because they're able to really grasp things in a way that they, perhaps, have not been able to before."

The Schomburg's collection includes everything from ancient African tribal masks and photographs of African Americans as slaves before and during the U.S. Civil War, to classic jazz recordings and the speeches of civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr.

It is no accident that the Schomburg Center is situated in the heart of Harlem, often called the capitol of African-American culture. Harlem was home to jazz greats Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, poet Langston Hughes, and civil rights activist Malcolm X, to name a few. And, according to Howard Dodson, the Director of the Schomburg, the Harlem community is as closely tied to the Center as the Center is to it.

"For a lot of people, simply having the knowledge that the Schomburg Center is here, and the history and heritage preserved here, is enough for them," he says. "So they, in times of crisis when the library was having funding problems or other kinds of things, people would turn out en masse to defend and protect it. Not because they were going to be here using the library every day, but because they believed it was a critical part of the cultural and historical landscape of this community."

During Mr. Dodson's nearly two decades as head of the Schomburg, the Center has more than doubled its collection. Today, it contains more than five million items. But for Mr. Dodson, the collection itself would be meaningless without an audience.

"One of the challenges is to get the information out of the stacks and off the shelves, and into the minds and muscles of the people," Mr. Dodson says. "And I would like to think that I've played some role in doing just that, getting the information that we've been collecting for over 75 years more accessible to not just a national but to an international population."

Mr. Dodson says the Center is using the Internet to widen its audience. One of the Center's next major projects, he says, is a federally-funded website on the African-American migratory experience, documenting the process by which blacks arrived in the United States and spread throughout the country. The site is expected to be online sometime in early 2004.

Visitors to the Schomburg Center are impressed. Elma, a grandmother from the Queens section of New York City, has come before and says she will come again.

"I like to know about my people. I like to refresh my mind so I can tell my grandchildren more about it," she says. "It's very interesting for the youth of today to know more about their ancestors. This is not taught in the home, but they can come here and read about it and see pictures and relate to it."

The Center is putting on a big exhibition on "The Art of African Women: Empowering Traditions," and it is spending a lot of money on TV and print ads to attract the widest audience.