The Schomburg

By Fitzgerald, Sharon | American Visions, April-May 1993 | Go to article overview

The Schomburg


Fitzgerald, Sharon, American Visions


Brooklyn, N.Y., native William Biacy crossed New York's East River in 1975 to take up residence in Harlem. A welder by trade, he is proud to say that he helped construct the new facility of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His pride increases as he describes how his knowledge has been enriched since then. "The first books I read on black civilization I found at the Schomburg," he says. "My whole view of world history and the role that we played I learned there. I have spent many hours in that reading room."

In the midst of a people's struggle and their ambition - surrounded by those who don't know, those who wonder and those who know it all - there is the Schomburg: a proud brick ship moored in the turbulence of Harlem's 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. For nearly seven decades, the Schomburg has been a haven in which explorers of African descent could risk self-discovery.

When 12-year-old Sebastian Ebarb and his mother ventured into the Schomburg to find a way to illustrate his report on the Dred Scott decision, they headed for the research department. After a few minutes. of questioning by the library assistant, it was clear that Sebastian was searching for runa-way slave notices, and the assistant directed him to the manuscripts, archives and rare books division. Sebastian was a bit skeptical. "You mean I can see the real thing.?" he asked incredulously.

First and foremost, the Schomburg Center is a library, as all members of its staff will quickly tell you. It is a research facility dedicated to the collection, preservation and presentation of the truths about people of African descent. As such, its reference holdings are the cornerstone, the backbonie, of the center's activities.

Named for ardent bibliophile Arthur Schomburg, the Schomburg Collection was renamed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 1972, when it was designated one of the New York Public Library's four research facilities. The center numbers its present holdings at more than 5 million articles. Its comprehensive research collection of books, newspapers and journals is well augmented by its special collections: art and artifacts; manuscripts, archives and rare books; photographs ad prints; and moving image and recorded sound. Together, these materials document and provide invaluable insight into the history and creativity of African people throughout the world.

"With all of our collection material, there is a priority on its intellectual value, its ability to illuminate some dimension of the African and African-American diasporan experience," explains Schomburg Chief Howard Dodson.

The process of collecting materials has changed since the days, 90 years ago, when Arthur Schomburg began his personal library to document black history. As a result of increased awareness - and competition for works with archival value - it is sometimes necessary to fight for acquisitions.

Diana Lachatanere, curator of the manuscripts, archives and rare books division, confronted the big guns - private and institutional collectors and rare book dealers - at last year's auction of the papers of the late Alex Haley. She didn't know it at the time, but her biggest showdowns that day, for the manuscripts of Haley's Playboy magazine interviews, were with a representative of the magazine. "We fought for the Martin Luther King transcripts," she recalls, "but when the bidding got too high, I backed down and they got it. With Miles Davis, I didn't let go because that was the first interview."

Haley's take on Davis is now a part of the Schomburg archives, where it joins a hand-edited manuscript of Richard Wright's Native Son, Zora Neale Hurston's pencil-written draft of Jonah's Drinking Gourd, first editions of works by Alain Locke, Claude McKay and Paul Laurence Dunbar, several yards of books and papers by Langston Hughes, and military orders signed by Toussaint L'Ouverture. …

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