Historian Will Direct Schomburg Center in Harlem
By Felicia R. Lee, NY Times
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a history professor at Indiana University, has been named the new director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, to begin in July. New York Public Library officials made the announcement on Wednesday, ending a sometimes contentious search.
Dr. Muhammad, 38, will succeed Howard Dodson Jr., 71, who in April announced his plan to retire after leading the Schomburg, a research library within the city public library system, since 1984. Under Mr. Dodson’s leadership the Schomburg’s holdings of artifacts related to the global black experience doubled to 10 million items from 5 million. Mostly recently the center acquired the papers of Maya Angelou, a collection that joined treasures like a rare recording of a Marcus Garvey speech and documents signed by Toussaint L’Ouverture. Under Mr. Dodson visitors to the Schomburg Center, at 515 Lenox Avenue, at 135th Street, in Harlem, tripled to about 120,000 people annually.
In Dr. Muhammad, a Chicago native, the library has chosen a scholar with an interest in race relations to face one of the biggest challenges confronting all libraries in the Internet age: posting materials online while also luring people away from their computers and into library buildings.
Dr. Muhammad, who has been at Indiana University since 2005, is the author of “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America” (Harvard University Press, 2010), a well-received exploration of how notions of black criminality were crucial to the creation of urban centers. On his Indiana University Web site, Dr. Muhammad lists research interests that include the racial politics of criminal law, policing, juvenile delinquency and punishment, as well as immigration and social reform.
Leading the Schomburg is “a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Dr. Muhammad said in an interview on Wednesday. He plans to continue his scholarly work, he said, and use the Schomburg as a bully pulpit to move black history to the center of American public discourse.
“I’m a person who’s passionately committed to the voices of black people and in making sure those voices are part of the historical record and continue to inform the conversation about race, the meaning of race and the legacy of racism in this country,” Dr. Muhammad said.
A married father of three young children, he said his goals for the Schomburg included making it more appealing to children, perhaps using the model of children’s museums with interactive displays.
As a member of the hip-hop generation, he said he planned to be active in acquiring the papers of a new generation of black achievers, including entertainers, scholars and athletes. “Maybe not President Obama, but perhaps Michelle Obama,” he said.
And as the Schomburg Center continues to digitize its holdings and think strategically about how to present itself on the Internet, Dr. Muhammad said scholars might play a role in translating their work to a wider audience.
Dr. Muhammad majored in economics at the University of Pennsylvania and earned a doctorate in American history from Rutgers. He was a fellow in the New York office of the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit criminal-justice reform organization. He is a great-grandson of Elijah Muhammad, a prominent leader in the Nation of Islam, and the son of Ozier Muhammad, a photographer for The New York Times.
Selecting a successor to Mr. Dodson was at times a bumpy process. Soon after Mr. Dodson announced his retirement plans, rumors began that he had been forced out and that the Schomburg’s holdings would be moved to the library’s main home at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.
The speculation became so intense that on July 15 Mr. Dodson posted a memo on the Schomburg Web site to dispel those rumors. At the end of July library officials held what they called a “community conversation” at the Schomburg to set the record straight. Mr. Dodson reassured the crowd that the Schomburg would not close, that it would not leave Harlem, and that he certainly had not been forced out.
Some vocal audience members that night, including City Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn, said they would fight hard to see the position go to Molefi Kete Asante, a professor of African American Studies at Temple University. Dr. Asante is one of the most widely published scholars in black studies, his supporters said, and is known for his Afro-centric perspective on history. The nine-member search committee charged with finding Mr. Dodson’s successor chose Dr. Muhammad from among 200 applicants.
On Wednesday Mr. Dodson called his successor “an excellent choice.”
The Rev. Calvin O. Butts, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and a member of the search committee, said he expected Dr. Muhammad to have a “great” relationship with the Harlem community and beyond.
Paul LeClerc, president of the New York Public Library, who made the appointment after the search committee’s unanimous recommendation, said of Dr. Muhammad on Wednesday, “What we get in him is a kind of intellectual and personal vigor, even charisma, that’s captivating.”