Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad knows the importance of Black history, perhaps better than most. The Chicago native, who earned a doctorate in history from Rutgers University and has become a rising star within academic circles for his groundbreaking research on race and crime, hails from a distinguished family of history makers.
His great-grandfather, Elijah Muhammad, was the leader of the Nation of Islam from 1934 to 1975. His father, Ozier Muhammad, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for The New York Times.
Now, at the age of 39, the assistant professor of history at Indiana University is poised to take the helm of the world’s leading repository of the global Black experience when he becomes director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in July.
Founded in 1926, the same year that Dr. Carter G. Woodson developed Negro History Week, the Schomburg Research Center — named after Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a celebrated intellectual during the Harlem Renaissance — has become the destination spot for thousands of scholars interested in researching and writing about the Black experience.
“I lived in the Schomburg when I was writing When Harlem was in Vogue,” says New York University history professor Dr. David Levering Lewis. “In speaking of the importance of the Schomburg, you can use any superlative that comes along.”
Lewis, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, directed Muhammad’s dissertation while on the faculty at Rutgers. He says he is pleased his mentee will be the Schomburg’s new director, adding that Muhammad will serve as the “public voice of African-American historiography.” “He is an extraordinary person,” says Lewis.
The Schomburg, a research unit of the New York Public Library, has experienced major financial cuts and declining revenues over the past decade. Lewis notes that running the institution will be “a very different trajectory than a tenured position at a research university.” Still, Muhammad says he’s up to the challenge.
The married father of three plans to raise the necessary funds to keep alive two important programs created by his predecessor, Howard Dodson. The Schomburg sponsors a Scholars-in-Residence Program and a competitive summer institute for college students interested in pursuing graduate degrees in African-American and African diaspora studies.
The Schomburg also contains the personal papers of Malcolm X, Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche, singer Nat King Cole and playwright Lorraine Hansberry. It scored a major coup when it recently acquired poet Maya Angelou’s papers. Muhammad says he wants the library to continue to operate as a public history center and museum and that he will continue to provide a platform for academicians, journalists, activists and young people to examine the Black experience through a variety of sponsored events.
“Outside of academia, people are increasingly asking the question if Black history is still relevant, as if the larger construct of race in this country no longer exists or as if somehow, even if we had arrived in a racial utopia or a colorblind world where everyone had equal opportunity, our history would still not matter,” says Muhammad. “That’s absurd. Our history will always matter. Even if we reach the racial Promised Land our history will still matter. It would be like imagining that the Old Testament no longer matters to world religions,” he says.
“My job is to push back, with the Schomburg resources, its brand and its reputation to re-instill a commitment for everyone on the importance and value of Black history,” he continues.
Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, Muhammad did not commit himself to a life of scholarship until later in life. After gaining admission to the University of Pennsylvania, he says he thought he would simply work in corporate America and make a lot of money. But his exposure to African-American history in college set him on a path of self-discovery and piqued his curiosity about race in general.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, he worked as a public accountant, auditing the financial returns of Fortune 500 companies. But he says he “did not like the disconnect that I felt between the nature of the work and the inequality of the world I lived in.”
So Muhammad enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Rutgers, after being recruited by Lewis. Now, after five years at Indiana University, he says he is ready to lead the 85-year-old Schomburg.
“There really is nothing like the Schomburg, its brand, the actual collection itself and its history,” he says. “The creation of the Schomburg was a deliberate and explicit attempt to take the historical record of Black people, agency and achievements in the world, and countermeasure against the stereotypes of White supremacy and Black inferiority.”