At the Schomburg Center, Harry Belafonte’s Archive Illuminates the Life of an Extraordinary Artist-Activist

singer in recording studio Harry Belafonte singing at a recording session. Photo by Yale Joel/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images.

For a week in February 1968, Harry Belafonte guest-hosted The Tonight Show, subbing at the personal request of Johnny Carson, the late-night program’s maestro. As a commercially successful singer and performer and a prominent voice of the civil rights movement, Belafonte used the “Tonight” gig as a platform to deftly mix entertainment and politics. Along with Lena Horne, Dionne Warwick, and other stars, guests that week included Martin Luther King Jr., who Belafonte met during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956.

A photograph from the historic “Tonight” episode shows King, weary but smiling warmly at a laughing, charismatic Belafonte, his longtime friend and supporter. The interview was one of King’s final television appearances before his assassination, a few months later, in Memphis.

The photograph is one of many documents in Belafonte’s vast personal archive, a remarkable collection that reflects the 93-year-old artist-activist’s eventful life. The entire collection was recently acquired by Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library, with support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Totaling more than 400 linear feet, the archive is an encyclopedic record of material that includes multitrack studio masters, broadcast-ready reels, demos and informal recordings of friends and associates, business records, press clippings, flyers, itineraries, and more. Archival holdings also detail Belafonte’s involvement in the civil rights movement and his connection with Dr. King, and his continuing efforts on behalf of human rights and social justice throughout his life. Taken together, these materials create a clear image of an artist whose art enriched his activism and whose activism fed his art.

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Jennifer Schuessler, "Six Decades After the Banana Boat, Harry Belafonte’s Archive Sails Home," The New York Times, March 13, 2020.

Wilson Wong, "Schomburg Center Acquires Harry Belafonte's Historic Archive," NBC News, March 19, 2020.