Op-Ed: Harlem Needs A Permanent Location That Tells Its Own Story

February 1, 2022

By Glenn Hunter

Most of what I learned about the contributions of iconic individuals and institutions of my beloved Harlem Community came from stories told to me by family members and friends who were born and raised in Harlem. Learning about local community history can help us realize that the grand scheme of historical change is made up of countless individuals like us and those around us who in their own ways contributed to the ongoing story of our community. This is precisely why there is a need for a permanent location in Harlem to tell its own story.

Learning local history can fill you with the knowledge that history is all around you and turn the grand patterns of historical change into concrete stories that tell of the lives of individuals and institutions. That is, you don’t need to visit Paris or Rome to see reflections of the past because your community has its own rich history. I know that whenever I pass by a place in Harlem I have learned about, I feel a real connection to its past.

I am often surprised to learn how many are not aware of well-known celebrities, influencers, and “movements” with origins and/or direct connections to Harlem. Actresses Cicely Tyson, Sanaa Lathan, and documentarian Dawn Porter have Harlem “roots.” Sidney Poitier became a classically trained actor at the American Negro Theatre which was located in Harlem’s Schomburg Library. Questlove’s award-winning “Summer of Soul” documentary examines the Harlem Cultural Festival which was held in Marcus Garvey Park. Newly elected Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg is a lifelong Harlem resident. In addition, concerned “Harlemites” were instrumental in the formation and continue to be active members of the National Coalition of One Hundred Black Women, Inc. and One Hundred Black Men, Inc. – organizations founded to address the critical issues facing those in need of meaningful support.

I asked my close friend Kim Taylor-Thompson, Professor of Criminal Law Emerita, NYU School of Law, about the idea of having a Harlem history museum (or equivalent) located in Harlem. She responded, “When I think of Harlem, I immediately think ‘home.’ It conjures all of the rich and raw realities of growing up in a community buffeted by challenges that still somehow survived and enabled me to thrive. It is also the ancestral home that Black folks everywhere claim – even if they didn’t have the good fortune to grow up there…A museum would tell our story to the country and to the world from the perspective of those who shaped Harlem and contributed to its powerful legacy. Harlem should be the museum’s home.”

Related: Harlem Historian Glenn Hunter Talks Harlem Renaissance, Harlem History Museum And More On The Danny Tisdale Show.

Kevin McGruder, Ph.D. – Associate Professor of History at Antioch College, whose interest in Harlem and doctoral dissertation led to his book, “Race and Real Estate: Conflict and Cooperation in Harlem, 1890-1920” said, “I think there is a need for a place in Harlem where the historical and contemporary story of Harlem is on display permanently… presented visually, orally and through texts… The audience would be current Harlem residents as well as visitors.”

In order to effectively tell Harlem’s story, relevant existing institutions could be asked to collaborate on the initiative and share materials from their collections and exhibits. The time is now for a permanent location in Harlem whose purpose is to encourage and disseminate a greater knowledge of its history and promote the study of persons and institutions critical to understanding the Harlem community.

Glenn Hunter

Harlem historian Glenn Hunter is Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of the Harlem Cultural Archives (HCA) historical society. Since 2008, HCA has maintained a repository of oral history interviews, hosted panel discussions, and street co-naming ceremonies recognizing the noteworthy contributions of important Harlemites.

Glenn, a lifelong Harlem resident, is a career educator who specializes in high school and college mathematics. He is currently is an Adjunct Lecturer at Baruch College of the City University of New York and continues to be a tireless community organizer.

Photo credit: 1) Sydney Poiter. 2) Cicely Tyson.

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