TWO GUIDING LIGHTS. Schomburg and Sutton supply spark for Harlem renaissance
New York — Harlem is a life style. It's the headquarters for learning about the history, the customs, and the art and literature of black people around the world. Harlem is the broad stage that spotlights blacks who hope to entertain the world. Two migrants to Harlem have nurtured the history, culture, and pop fashions and fads of this northern edge of the island of Manhattan. One was the legendary Arthur Schomburg, whose name lives on through the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The other is Percy Sutton, board chairman of Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, developer of the revived Apollo Theatre, the launching pad for so many of the nation's outstanding black entertainers.
The world knows so much about Harlem and of black achievement, culture, and mores because nearly a century ago a teacher told a black boy in Puerto Rico: ``The Negro has no history!''
That boy was Mr. Schomburg. In 1891 at age 17 left his native San Juan for New York. He devoted himself to a quest to discover his heritage. His legacy is Harlem's Schomburg Center, originated in 1925 as the Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints of the 135th Street branch library. That year is generally accepted as the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, coinciding with the publication of ``The New Negro: An Interpretation,'' edited by Alain Locke.
The Negro collection achieved scholastic credibility in 1926 when the Carnegie Corporation granted the library funds to acquire Schomburg's personal collection. Schomburg worked voluntarily with the collection until 1932 when another Carnegie grant provided funds to hire him as curator, a position he held until his death in 1938. It was renamed for him in 1940.
``The Schomburg mission was not in vain,'' says Howard Dotson, current president and curator of the Schomburg. ``People from all over the world come to Harlem to study here. We are expanding this center and its services to other libraries and museums around the nation.''
More black people, 1.78 million, live in New York than any other city in the world except Lagos, Nigeria. Only 300,000 of these blacks live in Harlem, but Harlem has become the undisputed symbol of black culture, Mr. Sutton says.
One Harlem trademark is its critical attitude toward entertainment talent, exemplified by audience reaction to performers at the Apollo Amateur Night every Wednesday. Patrons hoot the poor performers off the stage. But they also bestow laurels on those who excel.
``I love Harlem and its unique traits,'' says Sutton, who came to Harlem with his wife in 1945. ``It's a great feeling to be involved in renewing the vigor of the Apollo.''
``The Apollo will be more than a theater stage,'' he says. ``We already have a recording studio. We plan to tape television shows here. We also have recorded musical acts. We can expand our facilities to record on our own label.''
Sutton worked as a waiter, a subway conductor, and for the Post Office. He studied law and finished graduate school. He was also a politician. (He was elected Manhattan Borough president.) When he ran for mayor in 1977 and lost, he switched to business for keeps.
``We [Harlem] set the patterns and standards for other black communities,'' he says. ``Others come to Harlem seeking new worlds to conquer.''
Many have. Malcolm X established the Black Muslim movement as a militant alternative to nonviolence in the civil rights movement.
Marcus P. Garvey came from Barbados to push his ``back to Africa'' campaign, and he almost pulled it off. The only catch? His ship never sailed.
Paul Robeson came to New York to bea lawyer. Instead he became a singer, actor, and political activist.
Edward (Duke) Ellington came to the city to lead a band, and he penned and recorded the classic Harlem jazz theme song, ``Take the A Train.''
Today, the A Train zooms its riders to Harlem and the Apollo.