Howard Dodson Jr. Biography
Center Preserves and Shares Knowledge, Inspired to Study Cultural Histories, Moved by King Assassination
Historian, educator, curator
Howard Dodson, Jr., has committed his professional life to the retrieval, preservation, interpretation, and dissemination of the history and culture of African and African American peoples. Since 1984, he has served as chief of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the world's leading and most prestigious repository for materials and artifacts on black cultural life.
A scholar, consultant, lecturer, and educator, Dodson has guided the Schomburg Center through major fund-raising and expansion projects, including successful capital campaigns and multi-million-dollar construction and renovation projects. In the spring of 1991, the Center celebrated its 65th anniversary with the opening of the newly expanded complex, which included an auditorium, an exhibition hall, the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, and much-needed additional space for acquisitions. By 2005 the Center had well-established educational and cultural programs, including seminars, exhibitions, forums, film screenings, performing arts programs, readings, and special events, to complement and interpret its collections. The programming was carefully developed to highlight the resources of the library as a research center, however. Dodson told American Visions that "There has been the recurring question of the role educational and cultural programs and exhibits play in the life of an institution like this. We see our interpretive programming as a means of focusing attention on the collection and on the issues and themes in the African and African-American diasporan experience."
The Schomburg Center's yearly exhibitions featuring art objects, photographs, documents, published works and artifacts drawn from its own holdings, as well as resources from other institutions, have been critically praised. Each exhibition explores issues and themes in the history and culture of people of African descent throughout the world. The 2005 exhibition Malcolm X: A Search for the Truth offered audiences opportunities to view the Center's extensive collection of Malcolm X's published and unpublished writings.
Center Preserves and
In the mid-1980s Dodson instituted the Schomburg's scholars-in-residence program, which provides six- and twelve-month fellowships and use of the Schomburg collections for scholars, researchers, and writers. In an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), Dodson explained that he sees the Center as the "platform for one mission: to foster an understanding of the history and culture of people of African descent." The research of the scholars over the years has tapped the Center's resources in a variety of different ways. In 2001 scholar Samuel Kelton Roberts worked on his project: Infectious Fear: Tuberculosis, Public Health, and the Logic of Race and Illness in the Urban South, 1880-1930 and the following year Winston Kennedy pursued his work on Out of the Shadows: The African American Image in Print while George A. Priestley studied for his work on George Westerman and West Indian-Panamanians in the 20th Century: Negotiating Identity, Culture and Nationality.
Dodson continues a long tradition of preserving and disseminating black literature and cultural artifacts—a tradition that began in Harlem in the 1920s. With the migration of millions of people of color from various regions of the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa and the resulting intensity of artistic and intellectual activities, Harlem became known as the "black capital" of the United States during the early 1920s. One of the most outstanding historians of the decade, Arthur A. Schomburg, was a Puerto Rican of African descent. His library, as Dodson described it, contained over five thousand books, three thousand manuscripts, two thousand etchings and portraits, and several thousand pamphlets. The Schomburg library provided the resources for many of the artists and intellectuals during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. In 1926 the New York Public Library acquired Schomburg's collection for its newly opened special branch on 135th Street, the Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints. This acquisition formed the basis for today's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
According to Dodson, Schomburg was driven by a belief in the necessity of preserving and reconstructing the historical past of "the American Negro …as a stimulating and inspiring tradition for the coming generations." In Alain Locke's 1925 book The New Negro, Schomburg had drawn three conclusions: "First, that the Negro has been throughout the centuries of controversy an active collaborator, and often a pioneer, in the struggle for his own freedom and advancement. Second, that by virtue of their being regarded as something 'exceptional,' even by friends and well-wishers, Negroes of attainment and genius have been unfairly disassociated from the group, and group credit lost accordingly. Third, that the remote racial origins of the Negro, far from being what the race and the world have been given to understand, offer a record of credible group achievement when scientifically viewed, and more important still, that they are of vital general interest because of their bearing upon the beginnings and early development of culture." These conclusions, almost seventy years later, continue to motivate Howard Dodson's mission.
Inspired to Study Cultural Histories
Howard Dodson, Jr., was born in Chester, Pennsylvania, on June 1, 1939, the oldest of four children and the only son of Lou Birda Jones and Howard Dodson. With the support of his family, teachers, and church, Dodson was enabled and encouraged "to navigate dangerous waters," he told CBB. His parents' advice to "be all that you can be" encouraged him to achieve an outstanding academic record throughout his junior high and high school years. He was academically ranked first or second in his class each year and was one of only nine of the 89 students who entered Chester High School's academic program to graduate and attend college.
Living at home and earning tuition and book scholarships, Dodson received a B.S. in social studies and secondary education from West Chester State College in 1961 and was admitted to the graduate program in history and political science at Villanova University, where he earned a master's degree in 1964. Dodson was fascinated by African and African American history, but Villanova's history department offered only one course in black studies—African politics; black American history classes did not exist. "I had to shoe horn my way into black studies through the back door," Dodson told CBB.
During this time, Dodson's major interest was the comparative histories of black peoples throughout the Western Hemisphere. His curiosity about the Western Hemisphere was inspired by his understanding that during the first 300 years of European colonization (1492-1776), only one million of the six-and-one-half million peoples who survived the Atlantic Ocean crossing were actually Europeans; the rest were Africans who were taken to the United States, the Caribbean, and South America. Dodson's desire to learn about the differences among the cultural histories of African peoples in these three major geographical areas led to his decision to go to South America instead of Africa with the U.S. Peace Corps in the early 1960s.
Moved by King Assassination
The real turning point in his search for knowledge about black culture and history, however, occurred with the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dodson recalled in the CBB interview that at this time, he faced a major choice: to become a permanent expatriate or to return to his country of birth—the United States—with its increasing racial hostility and violence. Because of his work in the Peace Corps, Dodson had been offered several permanent positions overseas. But he didn't like what he saw happening to expatriates—particularly their loss of racial identity. Also, Dodson said, he feared that if he accepted a long-term position overseas, he might never return to the United States, a decision he felt he didn't have a right to make because so many others had invested in him. "My domestic debts were still unpaid," Dodson reported to CBB. Dr. King's death thus propelled him to take another course of action.
In his despair and disillusionment over hearing of King's assassination, Dodson decided to go into "retirement," as he called it. He traveled to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to spend a year reading, studying, and contemplating the convergence of various social and historical factors that had resulted in the civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s, taking with him ten boxes of books that he had acquired over the years. Dodson explained to CBB that by 1968, the tremendous amount of interest in the Black Power movement had resulted in the publication of many dissertations, articles, and other works on black history and literature, but that the majority of the books he took with him were secondhand copies of classics in black studies. During his "retirement" he read continuously and supplemented his own collection of books with research at the nearby library in Mayaquez.
Dr. King's assassination had "de-centered the very foundations" of Dodson's own code of living. In the interview with CBB, Dodson commented that the violent nature of King's death actually caused him to consider an equally violent response to it. But Dodson's ethical and moral principles, which he now identified as being closely tied to King's, enabled him to understand that this was not a personally acceptable response for him; the core of King's message was the belief that a substantial percentage of the white population was capable of being "redeemed." With King's death, however, Dodson realized that he now had no clear path to travel, and his solution to this sense of "de-centering" was "to return to history for new bases for assessing this particular moment in time." Dodson told CBB that he needed to connect with the "best of moral and ethical traditions," which he was to find in his extensive studies of black history and literature.
Black History Scholars
Puerto Rico was a neutral ground for Dodson. He had been there during his tenure with the Peace Corps, so it represented a "comforting" place, yet he knew he would not be tempted to remain there permanently away from his own country. At the end of his year of study, he had come to realize that "neither the social sciences nor other fields of study could adequately explain what was going on" in the United States during the 1960s.
This awareness motivated him to enter the doctoral program in Black History and Race Relations at the University of California at Berkeley in 1969—the only such program of its kind in the United States at that time. There he studied under such distinguished scholars as Winthrop Jordan, who established the program, Lawrence Levine, Leon Litwack, Kenneth Stampp, and Nathan Huggins. Dodson and other graduate students were also offered internships during this time at the Institute of the Black World, the research arm of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.
Dodson told CBB that he had been attracted to the work of the Institute during the first months of 1968, during which he awoke every morning at 5:30 a.m. to watch another installment of Black Heritage, a 102-episode series produced by Vincent Harding. Dodson told CBB that these 30-minute segments, televised on CBS, constituted his "real education." His subsequent internship at the Institute allowed him to continue his education under the guidance of Harding, Stephen Henderson, Lerone Bennett, Jr., St. Clair Drake, and other leading scholars of black history and culture. Dodson went on to become director of the Institute from 1974 to 1979.
Continued the Schomberg Legacy
Dodson's research for his Ph. D. dissertation at Berkeley was a culmination of his earlier interests in comparative histories of African people in the Western Hemisphere, his own personal reading and involvement in the Black Power movement, and his education at the hands of leading black scholars in California and Atlanta. Although Dodson's doctoral research has yet to be formally compiled, his conclusions make a viable contribution to contemporary revisionist discourses of black American history.
Choosing "The Political Economy in South Carolina: 1780-1830" as his topic, Dodson draws a picture of African Americans who were generative agents in the development of the southern plantation political economy—people who were contributors to, not passive victims of, a complex economic system. By approaching his topic from the perspective of the planter class's economic dependence on the black population, Dodson reverses commonly held myth-making assumptions, which focus primarily on the perceived dependence of the black population on the planter class. Dodson said that he chose South Carolina as the focus of his study because it was the only "mainland colony to have a majority black population"; he further added that from the founding of South Carolina in 1640, the black population was primarily transported from Barbados, which gave South Carolinian blacks a uniquely homogeneous cultural heritage.
From his decision to study the black experience forward, Dodson has continuously worked to improve the research and scholarly opportunities for investigating African and African American culture. Dodson wrote of his vision for the future of the Schomburg Center in an essay for the Dictionary of Literary Biography. There he expresses his continuing commitment to furthering the understanding of the cultural and historical contributions of black peoples throughout the world: "The Schomburg Center is looking toward the twenty-first century as it expands its services, facilities, and technology to meet the contemporary needs of writers, scholars, artists, and others who are studying and making contributions to black culture. In the tradition established by [Arthur] Schomburg the center continues to be a repository for materials documenting black life and a participant in the evolution of black culture." Under his leadership the center has grown to include more than five million items, including many digitally accessible sources, and Dodson has contributed to several important studies of the black experience.
Editor in chief, Black World View, 1977.
(With Madelon Bedell) Thinking and Rethinking U.S. History, Council on Interracial Books for Children, Inc., 1988.
(With Deborah Willis) Black Photographers Bear Witness:100 Years of Social Protest, Williams College Museum of Art, 1989.
The Black New Yorkers, Schomburg Center, 1999.
Jubilee: The Emergence of African-American Culture, New York Public Library and National Geographic Society, 2003.
Editor (with Sylviane Diouf) In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience, National Geographic Books, 2005.
Project director, The Other American Revolution (television series), 1982-84.
Producer/executive producer, "Paul Robeson: A 90th Birthday Tribute," Schubert Theater, 1988.
Producer/executive producer, "Ella Fitzgerald: A 75th Birthday Tribute," Carnegie Hall, 1992.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 76: Afro-American Writers, 1940-1955, Gale, 1988, pp. 242-55.
Schomburg, Arthur A., "The Negro Digs Up His Past," in The New Negro, revised edition, edited by Alain Locke, Atheneum, 1969, pp. 231-37.
American Vision, April-May 1993, p. 18.
Ebony, February 2005, p. 12.
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, www.schomburgcenter.org (June 8, 2005).
CBB spoke with Howard Dodson at the Schomburg Center on November 8, 1993.
—Mary Katherine Wainwright and
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