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Howard Dodson: The Man Behind the Schomburg Center

By Deardra Shuler
July, 2001

As far back as grade school, people expected great things of Howard Dodson. Dodson, who today resides as Director over the Schomburg Center, grew up in the small town of Chester, Pennsylvania. Ranking in the top 5 percentile of his class. Howard was considered the boy most likely to succeed. "Neither of my parents went beyond the ninth grade. My mother worked as a silk presser in a dry cleaning plant and my father was a general laborer. I was 24 years old before I had a full appreciation of the sacrifices my parents made for me. My father did every type of job imaginable as a general laborer. He had several opportunities to be promoted to the position of Shop Steward or Union Rep, positions in which he could earn more money and work less, but each time he would turn them down. I would get mad at him, thinking he was so stupid. One day I confronted him about this and my father said to me, ""Look Son, the Unions and the construction companies are corrupt. Any time you move into that level of management you move into a corrupt structure. He said, while I could make a few dollars more, I prefer to work for every dollar I earn to insure that you and your sisters have a stable living situation." It was then I realized, that by turning down these promotions, my father was keeping his dignity and setting a positive example. To this day, I appreciate both my parents. They have been married 63 years and I think they are the most wonderful people in the world."

Dodson did his undergraduate studies at Westchester State College in Westchester, PA., graduating with a degree in Secondary Education, Social Studies major, English minor. "Frankly, I was a bit disappointed in what I learned because I felt that schools of education, even to this day, spend too much time teaching theory and method and too little time teaching content. It is not critical or creative learning." Dodson went on to Villanova College where he earned a dual Masters degree in History and Political Science. He earned a Doctoral in History with Physiology as a second field. After earning his degrees, in 1964, Dodson went into the Peace Corp. "I was assigned to a small town in Ecuador. It was a wild west town. People rode horses and carried machetes. I had been asked to teach English and coach basketball. I had the distinction of introducing defense to Ecuadorian basketball." Dodson was also instrumental in setting up 15 Credit Unions. "As of 3 or 4 years ago, 12 of these Unions were still in existence," said Dodson proudly.

After returning to the States, Dodson went to Washington, D.C., where he eventually became Deputy Director of Recruitment and Director of Minority Specialized Recruiting for the Peace Corp. "The principle part of the job was to bring in minorities and recruit Senior Citizens as volunteers. One of the volunteers was Jimmy Carter's mother. I recruited Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanic applicants. Sometimes, I was successful and other times not. "One of the disappointments was after going to Puerto Rico and recruiting successfully, I returned to Washington to find that Whites were moved to the front of the list, and only two of the 40 prime Puerto Rican candidates were utilized. Also, it was thought that Native Americans were unrecruitable. However, my office managed to recruit several. I was asked to assimilate the Native American recruits and initiate them into the Peace Corp at training camps alongside Whites. "One night, the Native Americans began to sing and dance and play their drums, this terrified the whites who panicked thinking they were under attack. The Whites complained and requested that we stop the Indians from their celebration. Of course, we did not." This cast a pall and some of the Indians declined further Peace Corp recruitment. "I was disappointed. I had hoped to have a larger contingent of Native American recruits," reflected Dodson.

In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated. This set off three days of fires and gunfire. There was a mass exodus of whites from Washington who even abandoned their cars in the haste to get out of the City. The National Guard was called in and sealed off certain areas. Within these perimeters there was ongoing gunfire. A problem arose as to how to gain access to senior citizens trapped behind these lines. Dodson was elected, when few dared, to travel into the midst of the fires and gunfire to bring supplies to the seniors. He was also involved with the Poor People's Campaign. "As fate would have it, The Poor People's Campaign March was scheduled around the same time. Poor people came from all over the United States. Black, Hispanic and Native American people mobilized and walked from their home states to Washington to bring attention to the plight of the poor." This was a monumental feat. "Me and God, had this fight, because from the day the people first arrived until the last day, it rained heavily having an adverse affect on the activities of the Campaign. 1968, in some respects, was a devastating year because then Robert Kennedy was killed."

Dodson moved to New York in the summer of 1982, playing House Mom for one year. He worked with the Black Theology Project. The project involved 120 theologians who met annually to look at issues of social justice and the relevance of the Christian faith in both interpreting and changing those issues concerning the political and economic practices of society in addressing the needs of the poor. He also traveled to Cuba with the project organizing an international conference that became the cover for Jesse Jackson going to Cuba and eventually bringing out the prisoners. "We went there to dialogue with the Cuban religious community. I was also involved in Jesse's campaign for president in 1984, and while in Cuba, Jesse was received as a head of state. We were essentially considered part of his delegation, thus Cuba honored us with all the pomp and circumstance. Although religion had been banned, this would be the first time all the Christian denominations gathered together. Jesse was expected to speak but was with Castro and thus extremely late arriving to the Church. People were getting concerned when suddenly a soft chant could be heard from the back of the church. It grew louder and louder. They were saying, "Fidel, Fidel!" Jesse walked in with Castro and took him to the front of the Church. It was a fantastic moment. After our visit Castro ended up loosening the constraints on religious practices in Cuba."

Dodson was also involved in a research project for the Council of Interracial Books for Children. In this effort he collected textbooks, looking for problematic issues of race, class, sexism, social change movements, how religion was treated in textbooks and how Europeans were treated in textbooks. It seemed once Europeans immigrated to the U.S. they ceased to be ethnic groups but miraculously became white," claimed Dobson.

Dodson has served as a consultant for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He taught at California State College at Haywood, Columbia University, and at the City University of New York, et al. In 1984, he became the Chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library. Dodson's background put him in the unique position of being the perfect man for the job. Under his tenure, he has increased the library's collection, totaling over 5 million items; overhauled the original building and built the Langston Hughes Auditorium; raised millions for the Center enabling him to present close to 75 annual events and 6 exhibitions; turned the Center into the most comprehensive public research library devoted primarily to the documentation of African American and African history and culture; established a Scholarship-in-Residence program which for the last 14 years has provided 6 month and 1 year fellowships to over 80 scholars. He chairs the Federal Steering Committee on the African Burial Ground and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Apollo Theatre.

Recently, the Schomburg Center celebrated its 75th Anniversary at the Riverside Church presenting a wonderful gala of music and thanksgiving featuring Maya Angelou, Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson, The Ebony Ecumenical Ensemble, Forces of Nature, Three Mo' Tenors, and Abdou Mboup, et al.

Arthur Schomburg, for whom the Center is named, was a Puerto Rican of African descent who came to the United States in 1891. After being told Blacks had no history, Schomburg set out to prove they did. By 1926, he had collected over 10,000 items, the most comprehensive collection held by a private citizen. Schomburg was an amazing man as is Howard Dodson, who has been able to preserve Schomburg's collection while adding his own personal style to the Center, a designate that will reflect the accomplishments of both men for years to come.

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