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How the world’s largest collection of books by or about black people was preserved

By Citi
This article is more than 2 years old.

First published in 1936, the Negro Motorist Green Book directed black Americans through segregated areas in which a guide was urgently and unfortunately needed. One passage traded the practical for the prescient, though:

There will be a day some time in the near future when this guidebook will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States.

Now, copies of this book rest alongside countless other irreplaceable pieces of black history at The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is writing its own bright new chapter with the financial support of Citi and Carver Federal Savings Bank, another pioneering African-American institution.

“Just like our archives have to be preserved, the Schomburg has to be preserved,” said Alvin Starks, Director for Strategic Initiatives at the Schomburg Center. “And that has been a wonderful opportunity to find funding partners who will actually help us grow to really meet that 21st-century demand.”

The Negro Motorist Green Book is one of many historical artifacts housed at The Schomburg Center.

Part of The New York Public Library, the Schomburg holds a trove of global renown. “Our collection rivals every collection of books by or about black people anywhere in the world,” said Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Schomburg Center Director. Artifacts, images, audio, and more round out the massive archive.

Its collection includes recordings of George Washington Carver, the iconic American scientist after whom Carver Federal Savings Bank is named. The bank and the Center, which began in Harlem more than 60 and 85 years ago respectively, also share deep ties to the New York neighborhood that lies at the center of black culture.

Carver Federal Savings was founded to provide financial services to residents and businesses in African-American communities who couldn’t receive them any other way. Today, it is the largest African-American operated US bank, including ten branches in New York City. So when the opportunity arose to help the Schomburg meet the demands of a new century, Carver staff took a personal and passionate approach.

Like so many cultural institutions, funding shortfalls hindered the Schomburg’s preservation and outreach functions. Surveying one mold-beset collection, the Center’s director put the crisis in no uncertain terms.

“The Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division has decayed to such a great extent. It is a biohazard in the truest sense of the word,” Dr. Muhammand said. “It will be a destination point.”

Schomburg Center Director Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad.

The turnaround will come from an $18 million renovation announced in January 2015. It will be made possible by Citi providing $10 million in New Markets tax credit allocation and $3.2 million in NMTC equity. Citi partnered with Carver to provide the crucial funding, which will go toward building upgrades, preservation and research programs, and much more.

“This is a win-win opportunity, for the bank as well as for the Schomburg. We both gain such great benefit from doing the transaction. It’s smart finance, it’s smart business.” said Gina Nisbeth, a banker at Citi.

The Schomburg’s importance and potential were never in doubt for Citi and Carver. Despite its challenges, visitorship has remained strong, and it is expected to grow in both number and engagement as the renovation—featuring a children’s gallery, striking new public space, and better technology—takes hold in the community.

The Schomburg is yet another success story for a deservedly rising neighborhood—and Carver cares for its neighbors in other ways, including a $50,000 gift last September for a Schomburg scholarship program. It’s a social finance partnership deeper than any balance sheet, with an impact set to resound far beyond Harlem.

The institutions’ namesakes, their archival stars, and their neighbors would agree—it’s a historic new era.

This article was produced on behalf of Citi by the Quartz marketing team and not by the Quartz editorial staff.

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