Community rallies for collection

He turned down the Library of Congress.To the former President of Nigeria, Nnamdi Azikiwe, he politely declined. Even his alma mater, Pennsylvania State University, couldn’t persuade Charles L. Blockson to donate his storied collection of African American historical items dating back to 1581.But in 1982, one institution persuadedBlockson.That institution? Temple University.Blockson agreed 24 years ago to give the university his collection under the condition that he would serve as its curator.Breaking up the collection in any way was out of the question, as he states in his memoir, “Damn Rare.”The Blockson Collection’s first home upon arrival at the university in its centennialyear in 1984 was on the third floor of Paley Library.That year, under the presidency of Dr. Peter Liacouras, the collection was moved to rooms on the first floor of Sullivan Hall where it remains today. Liacouras said he believed that Blockson “relates beautifully with scholars, teachers, students, children at all levels of sophistication.”That is one of the reasons I placed his collection right here with me in the most prestigious building in the university. … Children can come into the same buildingthat houses the president of the universityand study their antecedents with Charles Blockson right by their side.”More than 20 years later according to Blockson, who is set to retire Dec. 31, the university’s president, Dr. Ann Weaver Hart, told him in a Sept. 18 meeting that the collection didn’t belong in Sullivan Hall. Instead, she suggested it be moved to Paley Library among other collections where it would have greater accessibilityand visibility to students and scholars alike.That didn’t sit well with Blockson.His collection, he said, belongs in Sullivan Hall and is desperately in need of space.Blockson said, at his suggestion the university agreed to form a search committee to perform a national search for a new curator to replace him upon his retirement.Dr. Theresa Powell, vice president of Student Affairs, will chair the 12-panel committee that includes Dr. Nathaniel Norment, chair of the African American Studies Department and Dr. Molefi Asante a professor African American Studies.The university also announced that it has formed the Blockson Collection EndowmentCommittee “to honor the legacy and accomplishments of Blockson by raising funds for the preservation and dissemination of his acclaimed collection.” To begin the process, the Office of the President will make a gift of $100,000.”Mr. Blockson’s contribution to the field of African American scholarship and his important collection will forever inform students on the black experience,” Dr. Hart said in a press release announcing the appointment of the committee.Blockson, however, insists that what his collection really needs is space.Books and artifacts line the floors of his personal office; other items remain in boxes for the lack of space. He continuously has had to turn down offers for newer donations.”I have not purchased any books for the last year at all because I don’t have any space,” Blockson said. “I have stopped receiving donations. I’ve refused. I tell them that I’d like to have it, but I don’t have the space for it. “Mrs. Merlyn Wilkins, who is 91 years old, was with Harriet Tubman when she died March 10, 1913. Harriet Tubman took care of her [Wilkins’] mother when she was young.”Wilkins wants to donate some of Harriet Tubman’s personal belongings to the collection, but Blockson said he told her no.”I mean, I painfully declined. I mean, who wouldn’t want something like that – HarrietTubman’s shawl that she wore. Until I have the proper space – no,” Blockson said.There is space, Blockson said, which was made available by rooms left vacant after the College of Liberal Arts moved its advising center to Liacouras Walk.That large space would be ample for his collection to spread out and be more accessible to its users, Blockson said.”This has been going on for a long time. For the past 20 years I’ve been asking for space,” Blockson said.Blockson, a recognized bibliophile, agreed to bring his collection to Temple becauseof the university’s location in the heart of a black community and its situation between The Schomburg Research Center in New York City and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University in Washington, D.C., two other prominent collections of African American historical items.”It’s an insult,” Blockson said. ” I didn’t want to go out like this,” he continued.”I’m only the custodian of the collection. “My legacy has always been to collect, preserve and disseminate.”A good portion of his collection of more than 500,000 items – including rare books, manuscripts, first edition works, archived issues of “The Philadelphia Tribune,” photographs and other artifacts are currently cramped up in boxes making them inaccessible to the public.That’s why, according to Englert in an Oct. 20 interview, “the president asked me and the head of Paley Library to look at the matter to engage in planning for replacement of Mr. Blockson [at his retirement] and to engage in the kind of space planning that needs to be done to accommodate the visibility,” of the collection, Englert said.”Sullivan is not terrifically either accessible nor visible,” Englert said.”Obviously Paley makes a lot of sense because it’s a library and the Blockson Collection is a prized collection. It’s very important that we maintain its integrity No. 1, but also that we make it accessible and visible to people who might want to use the collection,” Englert stressed.Sullivan Hall does not provide that accessibility because as an administrative building it is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, as opposed to Paley Library’s 24-hour operating schedule, Englert said.However, in an Oct. 24 interview, Mark Eyerly, the university’s chief communications officer, said “According to President Hart, if Mr. Blockson wants the collection to remain in its current location in Sullivan Hall, that will be done.”The university believes, however, there may be more accessible and visible locations for the collection and if Mr. Blockson agrees, the university will be willing to explore other alternatives.”And if Blockson doesn’t agree to other alternatives?”If Mr. Blockson said he wants the collection to stay in Sullivan, it would end the whole process of looking for a space,” Eyerly said.Many on campus and in the community aren’t buying it. And neither is Blockson.But, according to Blockson, the universityalready knows where he stands. He wants the collection to remain in Sullivan Hall.Blockson, community members and the Department of African American Studies held a rally Oct. 25 to voice their support for the collection in its current location.Blockson said he informed university officials of the rally.”I invited them [the university] to come out there to present their side because I wanted to be fair; I didn’t want to go back and forth,” Blockson said.A day after the rally, Eyerly confirmed that the university had been given an opportunity to present its side, but “it was an option that we decided we didn’t want to pursue.””We think the rally was somewhat misinformed because the university has not made any decision regarding moving the Blockson Collection. We consider Mr. Blockson and his collectionto be a treasure to the university and the nation,” Eyerly said.Norment, chair of the African American Studies Department and Asante were present at the rally.Asante said the collection has “never received validation at this university.”The university, Asante said, will use the collection to advertise itself, but won’t promote it. In an interview before the rally, Asante said, “This just shows you how [white] people who administer this university do not understand the significance of the Blockson Collectionto the history of Philadelphia and the black community.””As long as I am here, I will fight this struggle with you,” Asante said to the 73-year-old Blockson at Wednesday’s rally.As the event’s final speaker, Blockson told the crowd of more than 50 persons, “I will not move.”The university, Blockson said, reneged on the Paley move because of pressure.Among those at the rally was Sacaree Rhodes, a known community activist from West Oak Lane.According to Rhodes, she was at the rally “to demand justice for Mr. Charles Blockson and for the African American community and for the collection that is now housed in Sullivan Hall that should remain there.”Katrina Williams, a junior African AmericanStudies major at the rally, said the collection is “integral.””Not only to the African American StudiesDepartment, but to the African American community,” she added.Yet, as his Dec. 31 retirement inches near, Blockson said, “I don’t want to be the victim of circumstance. I’ve said what I had to say to the university.”This is a history of the people. The collection is bigger than me, it’s bigger than Temple.”Charmie R. Snetter can be reached at charmie.snetter@temple.edu.

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