Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Howard Dodson: Schomburg's Director Announces 2011 Retirement

Howard Dodson: Schomburg's Director Announces 2011 Retirement

Sunday, April 25, 2010
F. Finley McRae, Special to BlackAmericaWeb.com

Howard Dodson's successor at the internationally acclaimed Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture will have to fill very big shoes.

The Schomburg director, who has announced he will retire in February, 2011, has left giant footprints in intellectual and cultural leadership for nearly 25 years.

Last week, the 70-year-old Dodson announced his retirement from the Center, considered the premier research institution of its kind, which was founded more than 80 years ago by Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.

A search committee headed by two Schomburg trustees, Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Gordon Davis, of the New York Public Library – the umbrella organization with authority over the center – will select Dodson's successor.

During Dodson’s tenure, which began in 1984, the Schomburg has grown into a 75,000 square-foot complex that doubled its collections from 5 million to 10 million items, and Dodson has raised millions of dollars for the Center, including $11 million earmarked for expansion and renovation.

Dodson's first capital campaign, in 1991, netted $15.2 million in public and private funds. In 2000, a second drive drew an additional $26 million.

"Howard Dodson, as head of the Schomburg, is the custodian of one of the greatest institutions in our community," Rep. Charles Rangel, D-Harlem, a staunch Schomburg ally, told BlackAmericaWeb.com.

No less important than his custodial duties, Rangel said, "is the fact that he plays an even more important role in preserving and protecting our story as we lived it and as we told it ourselves. His contributions are priceless."

Among those priceless contributions were Dodson's efforts in acquiring an enviable number of collections: the papers of Malcolm X, Dr. Ralph Bunche, Nat King Cole, Lorraine Hansberry, Arthur Ashe and Ambassador George Westerman. He also secured the collections of Melville Herskovits and St. Clair Drake, photographs by Marvin and Morgan Smith, Austin Hansen and Margaret Courtney-Clark and the Bill Greaves documentary, video and film works.

Dodson also drove several major publishing projects, including numerous micro-form editions of collections containing original documents and a six-volume encyclopedia of African American history and culture. The Center has also produced a 31-volume package of works of black women writers, the Schomburg Studies on the Black Experience – comprising 30 online volumes – and a plethora of reference and interpretive works on African American and African Diasporan themes.

Dodson inherited controversy when he took the reins at the Schomburg, at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. His predecessor had hired a white man to oversee the center’s manuscripts and archives, sparking weekly Saturday protests by angry black demonstrators in front of the Center.

Dodson told BlackAmericaWeb.com that he slowly defused the controversy by highlighting the Schomburg's enduring value for Harlem residents and all New Yorkers.

"I took a very public approach (to rebuild community confidence in the institution's leadership) that revolved around major exhibitions and acquisitions," he said.

The turbulence around the Center, Dodson said, has now been replaced by "appreciation and respect for the Schomburg as a place of dignity and authority, where the custodians protect the heritage and records of people of African descent, from the beginning of time to the present."

Dodson said the success of the fundraising drives were due to the efforts of "Toni Morrison and the late Ossie Davis, who I put together as co-chairs of a committee to do a Schomburg-specific campaign with a $14 million goal" instead of the original $2 million target which had been set by Library officials before he arrived at the Center.

"One of the first things I learned was to look people in the eye and say, I want a million or more dollars," Dodson said. Soon afterward, focused on raising the Center's profile among major donors, he blended "everybody of consequence into a national advisory group."

The next director of the Center, Dodson said, "will have to continue to grow its collection." Schomburg staff, he said, "now know how foolhardy is the notion to have a comprehensive collection; no single institution is capable of doing that. The issues of cost, staff, space, basic ability to travel to various places are prohibitive."

Moreover, Dodson said, "we also recognize that local people are likely to know more about certain histories and cultures. So we appreciate the fact that we're part of a national and global constellation of institutions that have taken this kind of custodial responsibility, with each doing as much as they can to preserve our heritage."

Kathe Hambrick, co-founder of River Road African Museum in rural Donaldson, Louisiana, praised Dodson for "the valuable help he gave me when I called him on three occasions. He was very, very kind and took the time to direct me to the proper staff at the Schomburg to assist in my searches. Only after the assistance I received there did people here begin to come forward and help us."

Dodson said he hopes the Schomburg "will continue to refine areas of collecting and take responsibility for (gathering) sufficient resources and staff to exploit new Internet technologies that will extend access to people around the world."

Asked if his replacement should be black, Dodson said, "Absolutely. My most direct answer would be, who better to be the custodian of a people's history than the people themselves?"

As for a woman successor, he said, "Sure, certainly that's possible; the strongest candidates will be women, in part because of the relative number of women who're in the field of African and African Diaspora studies."

He suggested Black New Yorkers, especially Harlemites, could give the Schomburg more leverage "by giving money; we need to invest in it economically and continue to take ownership of it." Most importantly, he said, "we need to use it. We've got close to three million people of African descent in New York City. Every month or two, they should be here by the hundreds of thousands."

Dodson said the next director's success will likely begin with understanding two essential realities: The first, he said, "is that the Center is a part of a very complex organization called the New York City Public Library (so it’s necessary) to understand its inner workings and have it work for them, rather than simply working for the institution."

Second, Dodson emphasized, is "continuing to open the doors and keeping them open, so any and everyone with an interest in African American heritage will come through them."

As for his future plans, "When the ancestors have another assignment, they'll let me know, but I'm not looking for anymore work. If they have something else they'd like me to do, I'm always at their disposal," he said.

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