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January 8, 2003
Malcolm X Trove to Schomburg Center
rare cache of letters, speeches, photographs and journals belonging to Malcolm X that may yield new insights into the mind of one of the nation's most important black figures will be made available to scholars under the terms of an agreement between his family and the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
The documents, which were to be sold at auction last March after they turned up in a Florida storage locker, have yet to be assessed by scholars. The collection will remain the property of Malcolm X's six daughters but will be loaned to the library for 75 years.
At a news conference yesterday at the Schomburg's auditorium, the center's director, Howard Dodson, called the collection an "extraordinary treasure trove." Pointing to two imposing wooden crates placed against one wall, he said the bulk of the documents, which amount to hundreds of pages of material covering two decades of Malcolm X's life, had yet to be unpacked and examined.
Donning a pair of white cotton gloves, he gingerly showed reporters two sample items: a photograph of Muhammad Ali surrounded by Malcolm X's daughters dating from late 1963 or early 1964, and a spiral-bound diary, one of five in the collection. Dating to 1964, Malcolm X's turbulent final year, during which he broke with the Nation of Islam, made two trips to Africa and the Middle East, and renounced racial separatism in the dawning conviction that all whites are not "devils," the diaries generated a surge of scholarly interest last spring when their existence first became widely known.
"To the best of my knowledge, no one except the family has seen these materials, with the possible exception of Alex Haley, who may have seen the diaries while working on the autobiography," Mr. Dodson said.
In an interview Mr. Dodson said the diaries captured in more unvarnished detail than Malcolm X's autobiography, which was written in collaboration with Haley, and other published histories the evolution of his thoughts on race and religion. In impressions he recorded during his hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca in April 1964, for example, Malcolm X describes his shock at seeing Muslims of different ethnic backgrounds and skin colors. "People with blue eyes & blond hair, bowing in complete submission to Allah beside those with black skin and kinky hair," he wrote. Elsewhere he noted he was "not conscious of color (race) for the first time in my life."
Upon his return to the United States, Malcolm X, whose original surname was Little, changed his name again, to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, and founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity to promote the rights of blacks of all faiths. Nine months later, on Feb. 21, 1965, he was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in Manhattan by three men who many believe were acting on orders from the Nation of Islam.
Of equal significance, Mr. Dodson said, are drafts of speeches showing Malcolm's revisions in red ballpoint. "Malcolm was a very meticulous thinker, but he was constantly rethinking and revising," Mr. Dodson said. "That's what shows up in the collection: his constant search for clarity."
He said the collection would be made available to scholars and the public, but not for about 18 months, until after cataloging and preservation work has been completed.
The acquisition is a coup both for the Schomburg, one of the world's
largest repositories of material relating to people of African descent,
and for scholars, who led the public outcry last spring when the documents
were listed for sale in the online catalog of Butterfields, a San
Francisco auction house owned by
Malikah Shabazz did not attend the news conference. And Attallah Shabazz and Malaak Shabazz, the two sisters who did attend, along with their lawyer, Joseph Fleming, declined to discuss the collection's recent history in detail.
Attallah Shabazz, Malcolm X's eldest daughter, said the material had been stored for years at the home of her mother, Betty Shabazz, in Mount Vernon, N.Y., and had been removed from the house after Betty Shabazz's death in 1997.
According to legal documents obtained by The New York Times last spring, the material had been placed in Malikah Shabazz's storage locker in Casselberry, Fla., in May 1999. In September 2001, after Ms. Shabazz fell behind on her rental payments, the storage company, according to its customary policy, offered the locker's contents for sale in a blind public auction.
The material was bought by James Calhoun, a Florida junk dealer who eventually took it to Butterfields. The auction house had a history with Malcolm X materials, having tried in 1999 to sell the bloodstained, bullet-pocked address book that had been in his pocket when he was shot. The book turned out to have been stolen by a court clerk from an evidence safe at the Manhattan State Supreme Court and was withdrawn from auction after the Shabazz family and Mr. Fleming protested.
Butterfields agreed to sell Mr. Calhoun's material in 21 separate lots, which it estimated would bring in a total of $300,000 to $500,000. But after Mr. Fleming threatened legal action, Mr. Calhoun agreed to return the material to the Shabazz family. Neither of the Shabazz sisters or Mr. Fleming would discuss the details of their agreement with Mr. Calhoun or Butterfields. In a written statement distributed at the news conference, Mr. Fleming said that while the terms of the settlement would not be made public, the matter had been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties.
Among the items displayed at the news conference yesterday, they passed a glass case where a selection of items from the collection had been put on temporary display. Among them were letters from Malcolm X to his brother Philbert from 1949 and 1950, as Malcolm X was in jail serving a sentence for robbery and undergoing a conversion to Islam; a contact sheet of photographs from 1960 of Malcolm X and Fidel Castro sitting on Mr. Castro's bed at the Hotel Teresa in Harlem; a typewritten memo from March 8, 1964, in which Malcolm X announced his rupture with the Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad, and four of the spiral-bound diaries.
Manning Marable, the director of African-American studies at Columbia University who is writing a biography of Malcolm X, said the documents would sharpen scholars' understanding of his intellectual evolution. "Historians have always suspected there was body of literature and commentaries written by Malcolm during his 11-month sojourn from the Nation of Islam to his premature death," he said. "Within 18 months to two years, we'll be able to fill in the blanks and address the silences in the making of Malcolm."
Mr. Marable said that the scholarly excitement attending the transfer of Malcolm X's papers to the Schomburg was the latest indication of how much his posthumous reputation had changed. "There has been a dramatic transformation in how Malcolm is viewed," he said. "In 1965, when he was assassinated, he was seen as an anathema by many, a fiery demagogue. Now he's on a postage stamp."