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The Story of AARLCC

A Dream and a Vision

It began with the dream and vision of one man. Samuel F. Morrison, the former director of Broward County Library, who wanted to build a library by and about African Americans for the Broward community and the world at large. Not just any library, but a state-of-the-art facility for research, life-long learning, community gatherings, cultural events and technology training. Morrison believed in his vision enough to inspire an entire community to follow his dream, no matter how difficult the struggle.

Morrison worked with Broward County Library off and on for more than three decades: hired in 1974 as assistant to the director, he was later promoted to deputy director of the library. In 1987, Morrison moved to Chicago to become the city’s chief librarian and returned three years later to run Broward County Library. He created what is now one of the showpieces of BCL.

A visit to the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American History and Culture (a special library of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library), in what was once the heart of Atlanta’s African American community, inspired Morrison into action: he truly felt that Broward County deserved a similar facility. At the time, there were only two such research libraries in the country – Auburn Avenue Research Library and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City (a special research center of the New York Public Library). While the primary focus of the new library would be on the rich cultural influence of the African Diaspora in the Americas, collections and programming would include the contributions and influence of world civilizations to reflect a holistic approach to knowledge acquisition, literacy, and learning.

In 1996, funds were already earmarked for the construction of a library in Fort Lauderdale’s Sistrunk Boulevard area to replace the Von D. Mizell Branch Library, but the planned structure – a small branch library - was a far cry from the major research facility, cultural center and historical archive that Morrison imagined.

When approached in 1995 about more money to build a bigger, better library, the Broward County Commission pledged both the land, located on N.W. 27th Avenue and Sistrunk Boulevard, and $5 million, $7 million short of the projected $14 million it would take to build the new African American Research Library and Cultural Center.

Taking it to the Streets

Instead of being discouraged, Morrison was determined. The best plan of action, he felt, was to take the grassroots approach, involving the community in the drive to make this dream a reality. The race to raise the additional millions was on and fundraising efforts began.

By casting a wide net throughout the community, the fundraising committee for the African American Research Library and Cultural Center was able to gather donations from members of the corporate world, the church community, civic organizations, and individuals. Fraternities, sororities, and service clubs donated. A $1 million gift from businessman/philanthropist Wayne Huizenga helped upped the ante and encouraged other businesses to contribute. Fundraising events such as a benefit dinner/birthday party for Morrison were held, raising even more cash for the project’s ever-growing coffers. Grants were applied for and won. The end of fundraising and the beginning of construction was now in sight.

Building the Bridge

Now that fundraising goals were being met, it was time for action. Contractors, architects and designers were assessed; a committee of local African American artists formed for the purpose of adding artistic input into the project. Nationally renowned interior designer Cecil Hayes was hired to give the building’s interior an Afro-centric character, and PAWA Complex International, an architectural and design firm headed by Nigerian-born Emmanuel Nwadike, won the contract to design the structure.

For inspiration, architects and engineers with PAWA Complex International walked the streets and business districts of Ghana and toured West African castles where slaves were held before they were shipped to America. The design of the building would reflect the art and images of Africa – Kente cloth-like paintings on the façade, ornate poles of carved wooden faces and figurines to greet guests in the lobby.

Meanwhile, the important goal of obtaining material for the library’s special collections was being attained, one item at a time. The family of actress Esther Rolle donated a collection of her personal possessions, historic items such as documents relating to the civil rights movement and evidence of her professional and personal achievements. The Alex Haley Collection came complete with eight unfinished manuscripts by the author as well as photos and memorabilia from the Roots mini-series. Additional historic collections include the Council of Elders Collection, which preserves the oral history and tradition of Broward County’s African American pioneers, the Sixto Campano Sheet Music Collection, and the Dorothy Porter Wesley Collection, which includes art, women’s studies and reference books related to Africans in the United States, Africa, Brazil, and the Caribbean.

Breaking Ground

Finally, the time had come. The groundbreaking ceremony, which took place on October 23, 1999, promised to transform a vacant, four-acre plot into a vibrant library and cultural/community center. The festivities drew hundreds as fanfare, songs, synchronized drummers, and dancers entertained the crowd. Government officials, community members and even a Nigerian priest (on hand to offer a traditional blessing) were there to welcome the construction of the area’s seminal new project.

Hailed as a breakthrough for the surrounding community, the groundbreaking signaled the beginning of construction and the culmination of a dream. However, at the time, another $2.5 million was needed to outfit the library and the cultural center – $1.5 million for furniture and equipment, $500,000 to help build a collection and $600,000 to begin building an endowment. While progress was definitely taking place, fundraising efforts still continued – the battle was won but the war wasn’t over.

Groundbreaking(Left to right) Former Broward County Commissioner Sylvia Poitier, U.S. Congressman E. Clay Shaw, Florida State Senator Jim Scott, Broward County Library Director Samuel F. Morrison, Broward County Commissioner Suzanne N. Gunzburger, County Commission Chair Ilene Lieberman, U.S. Congressman Alcee Hastings, and Broward County School Board Member Miriam Oliphant at the groundbreaking ceremony for the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, October 23, 1999. Eighteen months after the groundbreaking ceremony, construction on the African American Research Library and Cultural Center finally began; delays were necessary to correct architectural flaws in design plans and raise needed private financing. But finally, in April 2001, work began on the structure, thus marking the culmination of a dream for Morrison.

Meanwhile, AARLCC’s first director, Arglenda Friday, resigned from her position, and the search for a director of the new library resulted in the hiring of Julie V. Hunter, the former director of Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History in Atlanta.

The Dream Realized

Grand Opening Ceremony Invitation Grand Opening Ceremony Invitation

Finally, on October 26, 2002, after almost six years of planning and dreaming, the African American Research Library and Cultural Center celebrated its dedication and grand opening. The ceremony featured a procession of Ghanaian chiefs and elders, speeches by various elected officials, including U.S. Congressman John Lewis of District 5 in Georgia and U.S. Representative Alcee L. Hastings of District 23 in Florida, guest speaker Lerone Bennett Jr., executive editor of Ebony magazine, and performances by Florida Memorial College Steel Pan Band and the Ebohon International Theatre Troupe.

People from throughout the community attended the inaugural celebration. Dignitaries cut the official ribbon.

Since its opening, AARLCC has become an integral part of the community, offering classes in computer technology and educational, recreational, and cultural programs on a regular basis. AARLCC has displayed over 38 major exhibits and offered 184 cultural programs to over 895,000 customer, celebrities, noted authors and international speakers who have made AARLCC a thriving center, a vital component of our community.