“For 90 years the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has stood in Harlem as the greatest library and repository dedicated to the Black experience…” was a portion of a statement from Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Center’s director, that was projected on the screen in a room at the Schwartzman Building of the New York Public Library last Monday evening.
There is no need to complete the statement because practically everyone who took the stage, even the six honorees at the 90th anniversary celebration, paid homage to the Center and the role it has played in preserving countless artifacts—books, photographs, rare manuscripts, films, etc—that have been indispensable to writers and researchers.
Anthony Marx, President of the New York Public Library, set the reverent tone for the gala when he said that the Center was the repository for 10 million items, including the papers of Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, and many of the leading artists from the fabled Harlem Renaissance.
His remarks followed an extended period of mix and mingle in the library’s vast rotunda, where there was an unending assortment of hors d’oeuvres flowing with music by a fantastic trio, as folks filed to their tables. It was a veritable who’s who in the retinue, including former president of the NYPL Vartan Gregorian, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, former Mayor David Dinkins, Brooklyn D.A. Ken Thompson, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, the former Schomburg director Dr. Howard Dodson, and Schomburg board member Gene Peters, to mention but a few.
When the first two honorees were announced—poet Elizabeth Alexander and television producer Norman Lear, it was a nice touch to have each of them recite the resume of the other.
There was a sustained round of applause for Lear after Alexander cited that “Lear had founded People for the American Way,” a nonprofit organization designed to bolster the principles of the Bill of Rights. Most of the audience seem to know about his groundbreaking shows “All in the Family,” “Sanford and Son,” and “The Jeffersons.”
Lear, in a similar way, began recounting Alexander’s extraordinary career by reading from her poem “Praise Song for the Day,” which she wrote for the inauguration of President Obama in 2009. He offered a few words about the permanence of the American Dream, “which is still alive,” before noting Alexander’s mentoring so many young aspiring writers and the publication of her recent memoir, The Light of the World.
The same format of introductions and exchanges continued when Vernon Jordan, Jr. and Ursula Burns were announced as the honorees. Jordan, the civil rights legend was not able to attend and his medallion was accepted by a good friend. As chairman and CEO of the Xerox Corporation, Burns has often been celebrated for her achievements, particularly in helping her company become one of the most diversified in the world. From her entry level job as intern in 1980, she is now recognized as one of the most influential and powerful women in the world.
Brooklyn-born Franklin Thomas, whose honoree status was invoked by Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, that was also honored, has acquired so many awards and citations that it’s a wonder he has a place to keep them all. Among his most prestigious stints was as chairman of the Ford Foundation, and Walker, when accepted the award for his company noted that it was Thomas who mentored him and paved the way for his current leadership.
Topping off the festive occasion—that is beyond the scrumptious meal–was a video statement of praise from First Lady Michelle Obama and the presence and words from Dean Schomburg, grandson of Arturo Schomburg, the Center’s founder, and he took that moment to introduce the coterie of other relatives. They were living evidence of the great man’s legacy, though the place was filled with staff and researchers capable of speaking chapter and verse about the Center’s historical and ongoing significance.
(* Photo by Herb Boyd of Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Vartan Gregorian)