New curator, more space for Blockson Collection

Edward Lee Turner was a proud man and scholar. He was one of the first black graduates of Hampton University, a private, coeducational Virginia college formerly known as the Hampton Institute. He attributed his success

Edward Lee Turner was a proud man and scholar. He was one of the first black graduates of Hampton University, a private, coeducational Virginia college formerly known as the Hampton Institute. He attributed his success to having a solid education and a firm knowledge of history.

And he instilled these values in his granddaughter, Dr. Diane D. Turner, igniting her passion for understanding and documenting her own history. Now, Diane Turner, a historian and archivist, wants to share this excitement and love for African-American history with students and faculty here.

“History has given me a sense of pride, determination and commitment to community service, scholarship and research,” the Malvern, Pa., native said.

It’s her rich knowledge of African-American history and background in archival preservation that has brought Turner back to Temple, where she will serve as the permanent curator for the nationally renowned Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection. Turner said she is excited to return to her alma mater, where she received all of her degrees: a bachelor’s
degree in art and anthropology and a master’s degree and doctorate in history.

She is honored to continue Blockson’s legacy, she added.

Blockson, who served as curator since bringing the collection to Main Campus in 1982, retired in 2006. Spilling with more than 500,000 items, the collection is one of the nation’s leading university-based anthologies of African-American history. Working with the university, Blockson helped form a search committee to find a new curator.

After a nine-month national search, Turner was selected to succeed Blockson. She will start Sept. 10. Aslaku Berhanu, who has served as interim curator since Jan. 2, will return to her pervious position as the collection’s reference librarian and cataloger. Blockson will serve as curator
emeritus.

“Dr. Turner brings many years of relevant educational and work experience related to the mission of the Blockson Collection,” Berhanu said.

Turner currently teaches African-American history at Camden County College in New Jersey. She has also taught at Brown University, the University of South Florida and Rowan University. Turner, a published author, recently finished her most recent book, “Feeding the Soul: Black Music, Black Thought,” which examines oral history. She served as curator at the African-American Museum in Philadelphia and an archivist for the Langston Hughes Collection at Lincoln University. She also curated “Look Again: African-American History is American History,” the first exhibit of African and African-American items at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library in the museum’s history.

“I have always had this passion for documenting and preserving and promoting African-American history and culture,” Turner said.

Turner’s first order of business is assessing the collection’s conservation needs. She estimates that it will take about a year to go through the entire collection to complete this task. But increasing the collection’s visibility and use by students, faculty and the surrounding community is also a priority, she said.

“My primary goal is to encourage more students to come over and do more research. The collection is excellent and very valuable. We not only have rare books but also archival material where students can conduct primary research,” she said.

With the collection scheduled to move into a larger, more prominent space on the first floor of Sullivan Hall, Turner said she hopes to see more students, faculty and visitors. The collection will occupy a single, adjacent space, facing the main entrance of Sullivan Hall, a request Blockson rallied for two months prior to his retirement.

“The Blockson Collection’s new home will be the kind of large, welcoming, open and well-lit space that the collection and the scholars who use it deserve,” President Ann Weaver Hart said in a press release.

Through the Blockson Collection Endowment Committee, assembled by the university to “honor the legacy and accomplishments of Charles Blockson by raising funds for the preservation and dissemination of his collection,” the Office of the President has allocated $100,000 to begin the renovation process. Kelly/Maiello, a Philadelphia architecture firm, was hired to design the collection’s new space. Construction will begin this semester and conclude during the 2007-2008 academic year.

The renovations will increase the collection’s space by 50 percent, said Larry Alford, dean of University Libraries and Turner’s supervisor.Turner has reached out to the Special Collections and Urban Archives departments in Paley Library to ensure students are aware of the Blockson Collection as a center for research.

“One of the things I have been promoting a lot is that African-American history is American history. With that, everyone should know about the African-American experience,” Turner said.

But Turner’s reach extends far beyond Main Campus. And her “strong ties to the local community” is an asset to the collection, Alford said. Through outreach programs, Turner seeks to excite the involvement of community organizations and institutions, including public schools, the African American Museum in Philadelphia and other historical societies.

Philadelphia’s rich history of African Americans makes it imperative for the city’s residents to be aware of such a resource because they can be key contributors to the Collection’s primary source materials, Turner said.

“[For] most people, their homes are their repositories,” Turner said. “With that, [I want to] have people thinking about . . . in the long-run, ‘Where [would] I like these materials to come?’ Hopefully, they will consider donating these types of materials to the collection.”

To preserve Blockson’s legacy as a scholar and historian, Turner has considered conducting and recording oral history interviews with him as means for students to learn more about him.

“This history has often been lost, stolen or strayed. Most Americans come to the African-American experience not knowing too much, especially African-Americans too. When I am able to sit down with students to give certain things they did not know, it’s like a light bulb goes off,” she said.

For visitors of the collection, Turner said she hopes to kindle a desire to explore and understand history like her grandfather did for her years ago.

Malaika T. Carpenter can be reached at malaika.carpenter@temple.edu.