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Fri, 07.14.1905

The Schomburg Center (New York) Opens

*On this date in 1905, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture opened.  This is a research library of the New York Public Library (NYPL) and an archive repository for information on people of African descent worldwide.

It is located in Harlem, New York, and is an integral part of the Harlem community. The resources of the Center are broken up into five divisions, the Art and Artifacts Division, the Jean Blackwell Hutson General Research and Reference Division, the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division, the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, and the Photographs and Prints Division. In addition to research services, the center hosts readings, discussions, art exhibitions, and theatrical events. It is open to the general public.

In 1901, Andrew Carnegie tentatively agreed to donate $5,200,000 to construct sixty-five branch libraries in New York City, requiring the City to provide the land and maintain the buildings once construction was complete. Later in 1901, Carnegie formally signed a contract with the City of New York to transfer his donation to the city, allowing it to justify purchasing the land to house the libraries.   The three-story library building at 103 West 135th Street opened with 10,000 books, and its librarian in charge was Gertrude Cohen.  In 1920, a white woman, Ernestine Rose, became the branch librarian and integrated the all-white library staff.

Catherine Latimer, the first Black librarian hired by the NYPL, was sent to work with Rose, as was Roberta Bosely.  Sometime later, Sadie Peterson Delaney became employed at the branch. Together, they created a plan to assist in integrating reading into the lives of the library attendees and cooperated with schools and social organizations in the community. In 1921, the library hosted the first exhibition of African Americans in Harlem; it became an annual event and a focal point of the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance. In 1923, the 135th Street branch was the only branch in New York City employing Blacks as librarians, adding Regina M. Anderson. A 135th Street branch report to the American Library Association in 1923 stated that requests for books about Blacks or written by Blacks had been increasing and that the demand for professionally trained Black librarians was also.

In late 1924, Rose called a meeting, with attendees including Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, James Weldon Johnson, and Hubert Harrison, that decided to focus on preserving rare books and solicit donations to enhance its African American collection.  On May 8, 1925, it began operating as the Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints, a division of the NYPL.  In 1926, Schomburg was interested in selling his collection of African American literature because he wanted it to be available to the general public. Still, he wanted the collection to stay in Harlem. Rose and the National Urban League convinced the Carnegie Foundation to pay $10,000 to Schomburg and then donate the books to the library. In 1926, the center's collection won acclaim by adding Schomburg's collection. Schomburg’s collection (About 5,000 objects) showed that Black people had a history and a culture and were not inferior to other races.

In 1930, the Center had 18,000 volumes. In 1932, Schomburg became his collection's curator until he died in 1938. Dr. Lawrence D. Reddick became the next curator. In 1935, the Center began delivering books once a week to the handicapped. In 1940, the entire Division of Negro History, Literature, and Prints was renamed the Schomburg Collection of Negro History and Literature. In 1942 Rose retired when the library had 40,000 books. Dorothy Robinson Homer replaced her as Branch Librarian after the Citizen's Committee of the 135th Street Branch Library specifically requested a Negro to replace Rose.

The 1942 extension of the library became known as the Countee Cullen Library, and the 135th Street Library is still considered the original location of the Countee Cullen Library by the New York Public Library.  Homers created a room of books just for young adults and the American Negro Theatre in the basement that spawned the play Anna Lucasta, which was moved to Broadway.  She emphasized building a community center for art, music, and drama.  She put on art exhibits that favored unknown, young artists of all races. During WWII, Homer started a program of monthly concert recitals in the auditorium to enhance the public spirit. Still, the demand by performers and audience members to continue the practice made it permanent.

In 1948, Jean Blackwell Hudson was named the director of the Center.  In a 1966 speech, Hutson warns of the Schomburg collection's perilous status; in 1971, the Center began being supported by the privately funded Schomburg Corporation. In 1972, funds from New York City were allocated to renovate the building at 103 West 135th, and it was renamed the Schomburg Collection for Research in Black Culture building. The entire Schomburg collection was rounded up from various branch libraries and transferred to the Center, and in 1972; it was designated as one of NYPL's research libraries. In 1973, a building on the west side of Lenox Avenue between 135th and 136th was bought so that it could be demolished and a new building could be constructed. In 1978, the building on 135th between Malcolm X Blvd. and 7th Avenue was entered into the National Register of Historic Places. In 1979, it was formally listed in the NRHP.

In 1980, a new Schomburg Center was founded at 515 Malcolm X Boulevard.  One year later, the original building, which held the Schomburg Collection, was designated a New York City Landmark.  In 1981, Wendell L. Wray became the director of the Center. In 1983, Wray resigned to pursue academic research, and Catherine Hooker was named acting director.

Howard Dodson became the director in 1984 when Schomburg's collection was at 5 million. In 1984 attendance was 40,000 a year. During that time, the Schomburg was recognized as the most important institution in the world for collections of art and literature of people in Africa or its diaspora. In 1986, a scholars-in-residence program started at the center.  In 1987, a public funding campaign was started to raise money to renovate the old library and enhance the new Center's housing and functions.  In 1991 additions to the Schomburg Center were completed. The new center on Malcolm X Blvd. was expanded to include an auditorium and a connection to the old landmark building on 135th. The Art and Artifacts Division and the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division were moved into the old landmark building.

In 2000, the Schomburg Center held an exhibition titled "Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery," which later went on tour around the world for over a decade under the sponsorship of UNESCO's Slave Route Project. In 2005, the center held an exhibition of letters, photographs, and other materials related to Malcolm X.  In 2007; the building was renovated and expanded in an $11 million project. It was one of the sponsors of the African Burial Ground National Monument. The Schomburg Center had 120,000 visitors a year by 2010, and Dodson retired in early 2011. Their current director is Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad.


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