Howard Dodson Jr. has returned to work, trying to make Howard research center great again


Howard Dodson Jr., 74, came out of retirement to take over Howard's library system, which is home to the Moorland-Spingarn Center — one of the two major repositories of the global black experience. It has been in a state of crisis, with a backlog of unprocessed treasures. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Howard Dodson Jr. has made a career of tending to the words and works of his ancestors.¶ As head of the world-renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, Dodson acquired the diaries of Malcolm X, the papers of Nat King Cole and Lorraine Hansberry, the collections of anthropologists Melville J. Herskovits and St. Clair Drake, and the prints of Harlem life by photographer Austin Hansen. ¶ But after 25 years as Schomburg’s leader, Dodson was ready to retire, done with the 9 to 5, eager to explore Peru’s Machu Picchu, Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches, Xi’an’s terra-cotta warriors and other sacred sites from around the world. ¶And then the call of his ancestors came again.

Which is why the 74-year-old finds himself sitting in the Founders Library on the campus of Howard University, one of the nation’s top historically black universities, where last year he accepted the position of director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center and the Howard University Libraries.

“I said to myself, nobody else,” he recalled.

How could he say no to his forebears whose books, manuscripts and photographs populate Moorland-Spingarn when many of their papers have been left in a jumble, disorganized and poorly preserved?

Dodson sits in a conference room lined with wooden bookshelves filled with an unsorted mix of worthless paperbacks and rare treasures of black literature, including a copy of the 19th-century tome “The Negro Genius,” by Benjamin Brawley. The shelves are an apt metaphor for his new calling.

Moorland-Spingarn, which rivals the Schomburg in the breadth and depth of its collections documenting the global black experience, is home to the papers of singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson and those of Harlem Renaissance-era philosopher and critic Alain Locke (including the unpublished manuscripts of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Barracoon”), along with the legal briefs of NAACP Litigation Director Charles Hamilton Houston.

But while Schomburg’s star rose under Dodson’s watch, Moorland-Spingarn, begun nearly a century ago with the donation of the library of black theologian and intellectual Jesse E. Moorland, had been in a slow decline. Budget cuts led to staffing drops. Important parts of its rich trove of ephemera and manuscripts are largely inaccessible, sitting in cardboard boxes in rooms that are not kept at a constant temperature to slow deterioration.

Moorland-Spingarn’s library division houses more than 175,000 books, pamphlets and periodicals. But of the materials housed in the center’s collection of Howard University archives, 99 percent remain unsorted. Of the 660 volumes — manuscripts, sheet music, transcripts, photographs — held in the center’s manuscript division, only one-third has been processed; another third has been inventoried, but the remaining third is wholly unsorted.

“The lessons of history that can be gleaned from [those] collections are not available,” said Professor Gerald Horne, chairman of history and African American studies at the University of Houston, who lamented the lack of access to the papers Moorland-Spingarn holds from the National Conference of Black Lawyers.

“Obama material may be in there,” Horne said of the papers, which include correspondence between the late Derrick Bell and Charles Ogletree, who were both active in the organization and teaching at Harvard during the period Obama was a leader on campus.

In Dodson’s early assessment of Moorland-Spingarn’s problems, he found the center’s decline had led Howard to plummet from a place high among the nation’s major academic research libraries in the 1980s to the bottom of the list.

“One of my agendas is to elevate public awareness of the central role Howard University has played in the global black experience since its founding,” Dodson said. “This is the largest concentration of intellectual power focused on the black experience anywhere in the country.”

Greg Carr, chair of Howard’s Department of Afro-American Studies and a longtime advocate of the research center, said Dodson “has brought an energy to this job that is nothing but transformative.”

Already, Dodson has received a $15 million commitment from the university’s board of trustees to renovate the undergrad library. The university will also increase its investment in the library system over the next five years to achieve a total budget of $18 million to $20 million. And Dodson won a $300,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to ship the card catalogue out to be digitized and to hire graduate students to process more of the collection. The grant will also fund eight travel fellowships over the next two years for visiting scholars.

“I can work some dough,” Dodson said with a hearty laugh.

Indeed, while at Schomburg, which is a part of New York City’s library system, he raised more than $40 million to support its expansion and renovation.

A sharp dresser who wears a single cowry shell on his suit’s left lapel, Dodson wound his way into New York’s social pages with his goings and comings as head of the Schomburg. (“Everything that was black going on in the city, I had to do,” he said.) Already, Dodson is putting that cachet to use here.

“He is able by sheer name recognition to bring attention to issues we have been grappling with for some time,” said Dana Williams, a professor of African American literature at Howard.

While Dodson needs to catch his breath after walking up the two flights of stairs to his office, he hasn’t slowed down much. In a three-day celebration at National Harbor in Fort Washington last year, Dodson married his sweetheart, Carol Alexander, who had directed the Ritz Theater, a treasury of black history in Jacksonville, Fla.

They have become a pair about Washington, taking in jazz crooners Lizz Wright and Dianne Reeves at the Strathmore, attending a dinner honoring a friend, famed songwriter Valerie Simpson, going to see a “Tyler Perry-esque” play at the Warner Theatre. As he sat in the library, he was thinking of dropping in on a concert honoring Chuck Brown at the Howard Theatre.

“[Dodson] brings a wonderful spirit to Washington’s social scene. Harlem’s loss is our gain!” Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and a longtime friend of Dodson’s, wrote in an e-mail from Nigeria.

It’s the third time Dodson has called the District home. The first time, he was on the staff of the Peace Corps after serving in Ecuador in the mid-1960s. He loved the Chocolate City’s dating scene. “At the time I was single and insane,” Dodson said with a laugh. “The ratio of women to men was 11 to 1 and my perspective was that the brothers weren’t taking care of their quota.” He returned in 1979 to serve as a consultant to the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Dodson’s social profile could help when he kicks off a campaign to raise $30 million for Howard’s libraries and the research center.

And there is, of course, some travel in his future.

As part of his fundraising for Moorland-Spingarn’s centennial next year, Dodson plans to put together heritage package tours to places such as Brazil and Cuba, which will feature black scholars and artists.

“Folks will want to pay for that,” he said confidently.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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