Howard Dodson, whose wide-ranging acquisitions and major exhibitions have raised the profile of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and burnished its reputation as the premier institution of its kind, plans to retire as its director in 2011.
The Schomburg Center, in Harlem, is part of the New York Public Library, which is scheduled to announce his retirement on Monday.
Since Mr. Dodson became the director in 1984 the Schomburg’s holdings went from 5 million to 10 million items, including the acquisition of the collections of Melville J. Herskovits, John Henrik Clarke, Lorraine Hansberry, Malcolm X and Nat King Cole, among others. Attendance tripled to about 120,000 people annually.
Mr. Dodson was the curator or co-curator for major exhibitions on subjects like slavery and black migration, and put on shows displaying the art of Romare Bearden and African women.
“I had planned to retire at age 70,” Mr. Dodson said in a recent interview at the center. At almost 71, he is tall and natty. “Unlike some of my brethren on the African continent I didn’t plan to be president for life.”
As the search for his successor begins and the accolades roll in, Mr. Dodson talked about turning a research library known mostly to scholars into a multifaceted cultural center open to tourists, schoolchildren and anyone interested in black culture. While Mr. Dodson’s tenure began in a mostly boarded-up Harlem, the neighborhood underwent one of its periodic renaissances. So it seemed fitting that in 2007 there was an $11 million renovation and expansion of the center, at 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, home to a trove of art, manuscripts, films, books and photographs.
“I don’t like to think about what I did,” Mr. Dodson said of the notion of his legacy. “I rarely do anything singularly. But we have established an institution on a firm foundation. We have gathered a significant number of resources for people to know about our black past. We’ve influenced African-American studies and the respect and appreciation for black history and the black experience around the world.
“Certainly the Malcolm X exhibition was major,” Mr. Dodson said of the collection of letters, photographs and other material put on display in 2005. “And ‘Lest We Forget: The Triumph Over Slavery’ in 2000 was the major exhibition on slavery in the country,” he said. “It was adopted by Unesco’s Slave Route Project and went around the world and has been traveling for a decade.”
Paul LeClerc, the president and chief executive of the New York Public Library, called Mr. Dodson “a huge success,” ticking off accomplishments like the collections, the exhibitions, his creation of a scholars-in-residence program in 1986 and his work in putting the center’s offerings online.
Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, said Mr. Dodson put information that was the preserve of scholars in the public sphere.
“As we emerged from the post-civil-rights era, this notion that the continent of Africa and the African diaspora had given birth to this set of cultures, beliefs, books, religions and genius was not accepted,” she said.
“Howard’s legacy was to make that commonplace.”
In addition to being home to treasures like a rare recording of a Marcus Garvey speech, a signed first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and documents signed by Toussaint L’Ouverture, the Schomburg has been a lively place for readings, theater and other performances.
Mr. Dodson said that he would miss it all, but that he would be far away soon after his retirement date of Feb. 1, 2011. He plans to travel to China, Ecuador and Ethiopia. A job is not on his wish list, Mr. Dodson said, but he would not mind helping African countries and members of the African diaspora in their efforts to preserve and interpret their heritage.
His activist approach to scholarship is in keeping with the mission of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the Puerto Rican-born black bibliophile whose collection was added to the 135th Street Branch’s Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints in 1926. Schomburg sought to show that because black people had a history and a culture, they were not inferior, Mr. Dodson said.
“While the scholarship that has evolved from Schomburg’s collecting activity has refuted 99 percent of those myths of inferiority,” Mr. Dodson said, those myths “are still part of the public consciousness and inform public policy nationally and internationally.”
But no matter the fortunes of black people anywhere in the world, the need for accurate historical records and analysis to document their experiences will not change, he said.
Mr. Dodson said he had also had his disappointments. He raised money to establish a Junior Scholars program to immerse 11- to 17-year-olds in black history and culture and to meet accomplished people during a 25-week program, but it recently ran out of funds after eight years.
“The kids would come in, and in a matter of five or six weeks you would see the lights come on and see how their perspective on themselves and on their world would change,” Mr. Dodson said.
One big challenge his successor faces, he said, is the one confronting all libraries in the Internet age: luring people away from their computers and getting them through the door. The next director has to come up with an “enhanced marketing strategy to reach more people as we digitize material and put it online,” he said.
Mr. Dodson has just a few words of advice for whoever gets his job: “If you don’t have a deep, passionate commitment to those ancestors, you should leave this place alone.”