The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has acquired the personal archive of civil rights activist, award-winning entertainer and producer, and cultural icon Harry Belafonte. The collection includes 400 linear feet of audiovisual materials, personal and professional papers such as letters and manuscripts, television scripts, and photo albums that chronicle Belafonte’s life, activism, and career from 1949 to the present.
The documents and rich materials will prove indispensable to those studying Belafonte’s cultural prominence and life over the course of nearly a century, during which he reached the masses and acted as a unique voice for change.
“It is with great honor that I can announce Harry Belafonte’s return home to Harlem,” said Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center. “This collection testifies to Belafonte’s unprecedented, over 70-year public journey across Black life and American life as a whole, starting with his time in the American Negro Theatre, which began in the basement of the Schomburg Center. A true Renaissance man, Belafonte’s range is on view in this previously unseen material, from musician to movie producer, actor to activist. His massive collection of clippings, music, and letters provides a great source to educate people of all ages about the importance of Black life and its cultural contributions to American history—from the US Civil Rights Movement, the global human rights struggle, popular music, the history of African American theater, television, and cinema, and American entertainment. As The New York Public Library celebrates its 125th anniversary and the Schomburg Center marks its 95th, the addition of Belafonte’s materials will help to continue the enrichment and education of the community for generations to come.”
“The Schomburg library in Harlem is one of the greatest gifts our city has bestowed on our community,” said Harry Belafonte, who recently celebrated turning 93 years old. “It is deeply moving that this destination so critical to my life and well being, from the days of my youth until now, should be the repository for much of my life’s work. I am honored.”
Highlights of the multimedia collection include:
- Belafonte’s music, including his first recording, a 1949 acetate pressing that contains “Lean On Me” and an original recording, “Recognition” through his last studio album Paradise in Gazankulu (1988).
- Massive scrapbooks of Belafonte’s press coverage from the 1940s, including performances in the Schomburg Center’s American Negro Theatre, through the Civil Rights Movement into the 1970s and beyond.
- Papers and notes documenting his efforts with Martin Luther King Jr., including the March on Washington and their friendship.
- Personal notes from his week-long stint in 1968 as a guest host on The Tonight Show, which no longer exists on video, including a list of interview guests, his opening monologue, and a public on-air reply to critics of his often-political content.
- Cue cards with the lyrics of “We Are the World,” the signature celebrity charity effort of the 1980s—which Belafonte inspired and produced.
- Extensive scripts of movies produced by and starring Belafonte, including The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), which he starred in; and Beat Street (1984), which Belafonte produced, which remains one of the best hip-hop films at the start of the genre.
- Home movies and recordings of Belafonte onstage and off
- Photo albums of his many trips and tours throughout Japan, Europe, and Africa.
- Notebooks from his time studying theater at the New School and a ledger book detailing club dates and payments at the outset of his singing career.
The processing of the collection will be expedited and available to researchers on a rolling basis beginning in about 15 months. The Belafonte materials will be a part of the Schomburg’s Home to Harlem initiative, which recognizes the New York City neighborhood’s history as the Black Cultural Capital. The Belafonte acquisition joins the recent additions of others with longstanding relationships to Harlem, including literary icon James Baldwin, hip-hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy, jazz legend Sonny Rollins, trailblazing actors and activists Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, and best-selling novelist Ann Petry.
See Also: Coverage from The NY Times