I had the wonderful opportunity last weekend to visit the amazing Broward County African-American Research Library and Cultural Center (AARLCC) during the annual retreat of the HARLEM WEEK Board of Directors. Located in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, the AARLCC is a vast repository of African-American, African and Caribbean history and culture—the third of its kind in the United States—joining the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture in New York and the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American History and Culture in Atlanta.
We were met at the door by our host, Al Tucker, Vice President, Multicultural Business Development for Greater Fort Lauderdale and Janice Henry, the President of the Friends of the Library. As we entered the venue, we were greeted by the sounds of smooth jazz, along with welcoming smiles. I was struck by the beauty of the venue and the tremendous detail taken to display its collections. Every aspect of our experience reflected the library’s mission to be a dynamic institution that seeks to build and expand the awareness of the contributions of people of African descent—from Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas.
As I was to learn, AARLCC grew out of efforts begun in 1950 by the Rev. Ivory Mizell, when he learned that the city’s only library did not provide service to Blacks. Rev. Mizell turned a space in his office into a small lending-library and solicited books. Within a year, the city allotted one staff person and this office-library officially opened to the community. It would take more than 20 years for it to emerge from these humble beginnings and become a fully-staffed library branch, which was then named in honor of Rev. Mizell’s brother, Von D. Mizell, M.D., the second African-American physician in Ft. Lauderdale.
In 1995, Samuel Morrison, the director of Broward County’s library division, presented to the county commission his vision of an African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, which would attract visitors, researchers, historians and filmmakers from around the globe. After the commission approved the plan and allocated partial funding, Mr. Morrison was charged with raising the rest of the money. He did it through grassroots outreach, which helped generate donations from individuals, the church community, civic organizations, fraternities, sororities, service clubs and corporations. The Friends of the Library was started 20 years before the Center was completed, and they became an integral resource for the fundraising, providing a conduit for donations towards the building fund.
Mr. Tucker explained that part of the success of Mr. Morrison’s efforts was due to the appreciation and respect he already had generated within the Black community—a community that was in complete agreement with his vision of the need for a place to preserve and share their stories. The community also was given access throughout the entire process—from planning to funding—which meant they were fully-invested stakeholders. The concept of expanding access to culture and arts was not a foreign notion to them. Consequently, the community raised $20-million—yes, $20 million—to build and staff AARLCC.
AARLCC opened its doors with a grand cultural event celebrating all aspects of the African diaspora on October 26, 2002. The 60,000-square-foot building was designed by nationally-renowned interior designer Cecil Hayes, and built by PAWA Complex International, an architectural and design firm headed by Nigerian-born Emmanuel Nwadike. The decades of collected books and historic artifacts housed in the Mizell library were brought over to the new facility. AARLCC boasts 5,000 square feet of gallery space and houses more than 75,000 books, manuscripts, historical documents, and artifacts.
The library’s special collections include the Alex Haley Collection, with eight unfinished manuscripts by the author as well as photos and memorabilia from the Roots mini-series; personal, historic, and civil rights-era possessions donated by the family of the actress Esther Rolle; the Council of Elders Collection, which preserves the oral history and tradition of Broward County’s African-American pioneers; the Sixto Campano Sheet Music Collection, and the Dorothy Porter Wesley Collection, which includes art, women’s studies and reference books related to Africans in the United States, Africa, Brazil, and the Caribbean.
Since its opening, AARLCC has displayed more than 38 major exhibitions and offered 184 cultural programs to more than 895,000 visitors. It also is home to a Small Business Resource Center, providing information and resources for entrepreneurs. In addition to its staff, the Friends of the Library continue to support programs and provide tours.
During our tour, which included an insightful presentation by oral historian and professor Kitty Oliver, Ph.D., as well as a delicious dinner, it was refreshingly clear that the staff, curators, and members of the Friends of the Library, have great pride in working or volunteering at AARLCC. At the same time, they take complete ownership of the place and recognize that the impressions they give visitors makes a difference.
Thank you, Mr. Tucker, for hosting us in Ft. Lauderdale and for sharing the history and experience of the phenomenal AARLCC. I thoroughly enjoyed myself! While there, I also had a moment of revelation: My Aunt Chee Chee, whose passing I wrote about last year, lived 10 blocks from AARLCC. I never knew about this historic institution, which was located so close to her home. Now, I intend to make sure that the readers of Arts and Culture Connections will not have to wait to discover this jewel of Broward County. Not only did the community provide financial backing to preserve cultural legacy, they also created access to these historical jewels in the neighborhood. I hope you will make plans to visit AARLCC in the very near future for an enriching and fulfilling cultural experience.