It’s not your typical New York tourist activity, but for history mavens and devotees of the arts, a treasure trove of Black cultural materials awaits uptown.
Earlier this month, the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture announced that, as part of its “Home to Harlem” series, the personal collections of six groundbreaking pioneers have been made available to the public in their entirety – author Maya Angelou and actors and activists Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis chief among them.
From a volume perspective, the Maya Angelou papers are perhaps the most impressive, comprising more than 400 boxes covering 200 linear feet.
Though they were initially acquired by the Schomburg Center in 2010, the files have been newly processed and modernized with a finding aid, making searches of the legendary author’s original manuscripts, unpublished poetry, and personal letters easier than ever, including galleys and proofs of seminal works like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and I Shall Not Be Moved as well as correspondence with such luminaries as James Baldwin, Coretta Scott King, and Julian Mayfield.
The archives of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis have recently been opened as well – fitting, given that the actors got their professional start on those very grounds at the American Negro Theatre, which would eventually become the Schomburg.
From pieces detailing Dee’s high school activism to her handwritten notes on the 1959 Broadway staging of A Raisin in the Sun, plus scripts from the couple’s radio show and television series and letters from the likes of Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Betty Shabazz, the collection paints a clear picture of intertwined lives of activism and artistry.
The Schomburg’s holdings also include drafts of the playscripts, short stories and screenplays of Kathleen Collins, a filmmaker and dramatist who, with the release of 1982’s Losing Ground, became the first Black woman to direct a Hollywood-distributed feature film; the personal correspondence, clippings and typescripts of Gertrude Hadley Jeannette, an actor, director, playwright and the first woman licensed to drive a cab in New York City; and the journals, photos and unpublished drafts, poetry and manuscripts of literary pioneer Ann Petry, author of 1946’s The Street – the first book focused on Black life in Harlem, and the first by an African-American woman to sell more than a million copies.
The “Home to Harlem” initiative also includes recent acquisitions, such as the complete archives of James Baldwin, Sonny Rollins, and Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite, plus gems like the manuscript of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, featuring edits by author Alex Haley and the subject himself.
Many of the “Home to Harlem” works will also be included in an exhibit, opening next month, called Traveling While Black. Timed to the Schomburg’s 95th anniversary, the show will examine more than a century of Black movement, from the Great Migration in the early 20th century to travel under South African apartheid and in the Jim Crow South.
For more information, visit schomburgcenter.org.