Sam Morrison Biography - Discovered Life Among the Bookshelves, Idea for Library Started Small, Created Valuable Resource for Scholarship
On October 23, 1999, Sam Morrison, then director of the Broward County (Florida) Library System, watched the ground break for the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center. The center was the realization of his wish to build a facility for the exchange of information and ideas relating to African culture and the black experience that would attract visitors, researchers, historians, and filmmakers from around the globe. Opening to the public on October 26, 2002, the center became the third of its kind in the United States, joining the Schomburg Center for Research in New York and the Auburn Research Library in Atlanta. This 60,000-square-foot research center was built by the largest African-American architectural and engineering firm in the United States. Decorated by an award-winning African-American design team, the library boasts 5,000 square feet of gallery space and houses over 75,000 books, manuscripts, historical documents, and artifacts.
Morrison's vision turned the county's proposal to build a small traditional library in Broward County into a plan to build a facility that honors black culture. Seeking to promote black history and an appreciation for black achievement, the center houses a collection that is a treasure trove of both well known and little known gems. For African Americans, especially, the center provides the resources for a substantial exploration of the black experience in America, an experience filled with pain, hope, and achievement. The center's many collections—including FBI files from the civil rights era and slave narratives—provide ample evidence of a past both troubling and profoundly encouraging.
Discovered Life Among
Sam Morrison was born in Flagstaff, Arizona, on December 19, 1936, and spent most of his youth in Phoenix. Morrison lived in a tight-knit community of family and friends. He attributes his success in life to these influences, his church, and especially his maternal grandfather, James W. Swain, a man Morrison remembers as being loved and respected in the community. "I never heard anyone say anything bad about him," Morrison said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). "I knew if I grew up to be like him I would be fine."
When Morrison was 15 his father, Travis, passed away, and his mother, Ruth, was left to run the family restaurants alone while raising Sam and his sister. Ruth later sold the business and moved the family to Los Angeles. Morrison had been a top student back in Phoenix, but when he was forced to work to help the family his studies suffered. Morrison persevered and upon graduating high school he entered community college. A year-and-a-half later, in 1955, Morrison dropped out of college and joined the Air Force, planning to take advantage of the military's tuition assistance program. From his base in Marrakech, Morocco, Morrison traveled often to countries in Europe. He also used this time to complete junior college.
After his tour in the military, Morrison spent the next decade working as a manager for Lucky supermarkets in Los Angeles and completing a bachelor of arts in English at the California State University at Los Angeles. Pondering his future, Morrison thought perhaps his life-long love of reading should guide him towards work at the library. "It wasn't that I knew a lot about salaries or what the work was really like as a librarian," Morrison said. "I was wrapped up in the romance of being in a place with a lot of books." There had always been books around his home as a child and he had found enjoyment among the bookshelves as he worked at local libraries during high school and college. Realizing a passion had developed, Morrison enrolled at the University of Illinois at Champaign to pursue a master's degree in library science. Later he completed his studies in a local government program for elected and appointed officials at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
Morrison's career advanced through the years, and he was invited to sit on numerous boards, heading up several of them, and earning a long list of awards and honors for his extensive civic work around Fort Lauderdale, Flordia. In 1972 he was appointed director of the Frostproof Living Learning Library and in 1974 he became assistant to the director of the Broward County Library System. Morrison was promoted to deputy director of the county system in 1976. From 1987 until 1990 Morrison served as deputy commissioner and chief librarian of the Chicago Public Library, and he was responsible for the planning, design, and construction of the Harold Washington Library, the largest municipal library in the United States. The library was named in honor of the late Harold Washington, the much-loved African-American mayor of Chicago. Morrison returned to Broward County when he was appointed director of the county library system. At this time he began to develop his vision for the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center.
Idea for Library Started Small
At first, library administrators planned to build a small traditional library funded through a bond issue that Morrison worked on back in 1974. The county had grown considerably in recent years and was badly in need of new libraries. Just a handful of small libraries existed in the county and there was only a single large facility, located in Fort Lauderdale. Morrison saw an opportunity to fill the void in an important way. "Being black myself, I had mixed feelings about the job I had done as an African American," Morrison told CBB. Realizing the needs of the underserved minority community, Morrison felt compelled to push the idea of building a crowning piece to the library system that would serve and represent black culture.
"Also, I wanted to make sure that local tax dollars were spent in predominately minority communities. I felt they should and could build something better than the small library they were planning in the bond issue," Morrison told CBB. "It would be the first library in northwest Fort Lauderdale, a predominately black area, and would be a permanent library to replace a historical facility, the Von D. Mizell library, named after a prominent local African-American physician. Besides being a traditional library I felt it should have a research component to collect, preserve, and promote the history of the black experience, particularly in the Southeast. Additionally I wanted a cultural component with an auditorium and meeting rooms, because nothing of that kind existed in the community." The completed structure holds a full stage for entertainment, dance, theater, and lectures, making it attractive to tour groups as well as local performers, and provides a full range of library services.
It took Morrison two-and-a-half years to sell county officials on his vision. "My job was to find the money," he said. "My efforts to find additional funding were successful because people responded to my intensity and they knew the library services were really needed in the community."
Created Valuable Resource
The African-American Research Library and Cultural Center has a full spectrum of offerings: electronic material, oral histories, special collections, office space, computer labs, and a small business resource center. Visitors have many services available to enhance their experience, including literacy programs, genealogical research training, internet access, computer skills development, and technology assistance.
Morrison oversaw the purchase of the impressive collection of Dorothy Porter Wesley, a noted librarian from Howard University in Washington, D.C. The collection includes artwork and historical documents relating to women's studies, reference and bibliographical material, and many other important materials relating to blacks from North America, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. The library is host to manuscripts and other documents from noted author Alex Haley; the Charles Mills Phonograph Album Collection of blues and jazz albums; the 5,000-volume collection of Daniel M. Johnson, which contains the works of African-American doctors, authors, musicians, artists, and educators; personal interviews and first-hand accounts of slavery from the Fisk University Collection; the 96-volume collection of Jack Abramowitz on slavery and reconstruction; the Hewitt Haitian Art Collection; the Kitty Oliver Oral Histories Collection; and the Library of the Spoken Word, with 5,000 recordings of interviews, dramas, and lectures on many aspects of Caribbean life and history.
The center has an extensive collection of works on microfilm and microfiche which includes the Bethune-Cookman College Collection; the Black Abolitionist Papers; the Langston Hughes Collection; the Conrad/Harriet Tubman Collection; the FBI files and personal papers of W.E.B. Du Bois; and the Paul Robeson Collection. A collection of bronze and wood sculptures are on display from Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, and slides of the local African-American community of Sistrunk in Broward County document its early history.
A visit to the center will touch many, not unlike a visit to Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, where many Africans last saw their homeland as they boarded slave vessels. To visit this center in Broward County is to walk away with a notion of having been spoken to by ancestors, black and white, urging us to heed what history tells as we learn how to go forward. With the building of the Von D. Mizell African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, Morrison has done us all a great favor.
"From the Former Broward County Library Director," African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, www.broward.org/library/aarlcc.htm (December 19, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Sam Morrison on December 28, 2004.
—Sharon Melson Fletcherx