By Larry Mullins, 1010 WINS
Ever see a walking museum? I met one today: Howard Dodson. For 25 years, he has operated, finessed, fine-tuned and brought to life one of the biggest and brightest culturally iconic places on the planet, in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He is the Director.
And what he’s done here, and the collection that he has amassed absolutely amazes me. You walk into this place, and you see the works of Ralph Bunche, Malcolm, Ashe—all the giants, and Dodson was the one who made it all happen. And when you listen to him speak, he has this James Earl Jones (the voice of God) texture about him, that makes you want to listen to him all day. He actually brings the walls and the books, and the keepsakes, and the artifacts, and and and and and….all of it comes to life!
When he arrived here, the place was a mere assortment of books, which chronicled the black experience. Nothing fancy. It was part of the New York Public Library system then, as it is now. Well Dodson tells me this day about how he ended up “pushing buttons” with the right people, “and pissing off the rest” to acquire the original works of some of the most influential framers of African-American life. Even Paul LeClerc, the head of the NYPL calls Dodson one of a kind, not to mention his library.
I slipped and called it a museum. Bad career move. The Schomburg is, as Dodson built it, a library where everybody from scholars to grade school children can come to see what he calls the evidence, of a gifted and resourceful people.
It’s really hard to walk through the center (it’s up in Harlem at 135th and Lenox) without feeling like somebody’s watching you; some ghost of the past, steeped in the pages and into the skins of millions of artifacts and books chronicling their lives. There is none other like it in the country—unless you include a handful of historically black colleges which are primarily used by college students and not necessarily open to the public.
We are very fortunate to have a Schomburg Center here in our fair city, and truly blessed to have had a guy like Dodson to give it life. He steps down this month (February 2011). And while he says he’ll keep his eyes on the place from afar, he’s thinking more along the lines of philanthropy now. But I would hate to be the guy that’ll fill his shoes.
As for the center itself, a recent $11-million facelift and expansion has set the stage for even more treasures to fill its halls.
But I have to tell you, one of its greatest treasures, is this guy sitting across from me, with the great baritone voice, (and the sports bar laugh), whose about to head out fishing.
An honor to meet you, Howard Dodson. (Told my mom I got to meet you and shake your hand….and for the first time she tells me, “don’t wash that hand son; wrap it in something”.)
Ah…I can hear you laughing Howard. Loud as hell!