Harry Belafonte's Archives Come Home to Harlem Library

In a week of closures and cancelations, the New York Public Library announced some rare good news: The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has acquired artist and activist Harry Belafonte’s personal archives.

Exterior of Schomburg Center
Photo by Jonathan Blanc

In a week of closures and cancelations due to the coronavirus outbreak, the New York Public Library announced some good news: The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has acquired artist and activist Harry Belafonte’s personal archives.

Belafonte, 93, has a long history with the Schomburg. He was born in Harlem, and, early in his career performed at the American Negro Theatre, located in the basement of the Schomburg, alongside actors Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis. Belafonte has referred to his experiences at the Schomburg as an “epiphany”—which launched a trailblazing career that encompassed music, film, and television. His album Calypso was the first to sell more than a million copies, and he was the first African American to win an Emmy Award.

The Schomburg plans to make the materials available on a rolling basis in about 15 months. “With our closure, that time line might be adjusted, but it’s our top priority right now in terms of providing access,” says Schomburg Director Kevin Young.

The acquisition is the latest in the center’s Home to Harlem initiative, which spotlights materials from those who shaped, and were shaped by, the neighborhood, including jazz musician Sonny Rollins, authors James Baldwin and Ann Petry, and hip-hop legend Fab 5 Freddy. Says Young, “We’re bringing the sons and daughters of Harlem home.”

With home movies, photo albums, and scrapbooks detailing media coverage of Belafonte’s work, it’s a personal look at the man, says Young. “But it also provides a look at an 80-year span of American life. He’s there at the birth of black theater and also the expansion of black pop culture to all corners of life.”

Among the many standout items in the collection are Belafonte’s notes from the week he guest hosted The Tonight Show (only a few video clips of these episodes exist). Taking over for Johnny Carson in 1968, he showcased black culture in a way seldom seen in mainstream media at the time, interviewing Martin Luther King Jr., Poitier, actress Lena Horne, singer Dionne Warwick, and many others.

Also included in the collection are cue cards from the 1985 “We Are the World” charity initiative, which raised money for African famine relief; Belafonte conceived of the idea after Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 1984 and, along with fundraiser Ken Kragen, enlisted some of the biggest artists of the day to record a single written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.

Researchers will also find scripts from films Belafonte starred in such as The World, the Flesh, and the Devil, and those he produced, including 1984’s Beat Street, about a group of friends passionate about elements of hip-hop culture, from graffiti to break dancing to DJing. “Seeing his scripts is powerful because you see how many ways he was involved in the film industry,” says Young, adding, “He’s even part of hip-hop’s rise.”

Belafonte’s work as an activist comes through, too, with materials documenting his friendship with King and his contributions to the March on Washington.

Young hopes that the archive will give people an appreciation for the scope of Belafonte’s life. “People may know one or two sides of him, but to see all that, plus his activism and his centrality to the civil rights movement, is impressive. It takes something like the vastness of his archive to understand that.”

He adds, "His achievements are so many and so consistent and so longstanding that I think it’s important to remind people of that. The archive does that."

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Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

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