Campus News

Black History Month 2024: Celebrating a new tool from the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College

Sonia Sanchez
Award-winning poet Sonia Sanchez at an event celebrating her 80th birthday hosted by the CBL.

Founded by Dr. Brenda Greene in 2002, the Center for Black Literature (CBL) has been a primary self-described driver in “…expanding, broadening, and enriching the public’s knowledge and appreciation of Black Literature by people of the African Diaspora and of the African continent.”

In the process, it’s become the home of important programs including the upcoming National Black Writers Conference (the NBWC is entering its 38th year), the NBWC Biennial Symposium, Re-Envisioning Our Lives Through Literature (ROLL was founded in 2003), the John Oliver Killens Reading Series (established in 2012), the Wild Seeds Writers Retreat, and the weekly “Writers on Writing” radio program broadcast on WNYE, 91.5 FM.

With so much going on at the CBL, the time came for the broader public to know about all its history. That all gets rectified when The History and Legacy of the Center for Black Literature: An Online Exhibition is launched on Thursday, February 15.

They will celebrate with a launch event on February 15 at 6:30 p.m. in the Edwin O. Jackson Auditorium in AB1. The celebration is part of Medgar Evers College’s extensive Black History Month calendar.

For Greene, it’s a long overdue accomplishment.

“I’ve always had a vision of what the Center for Black Literature should be,” Greene said. “When some people think about what the Center for Black Literature should be, they only think about the National Black Writers Conference. But we are so much bigger and do so much more than just a conference. And seeing the documentation of all the lives we’ve touched and how intergenerational we’ve been is really a vision and dream come true.”

Brenda Greene and Ossie Davis
Dr. Brenda Greene and actor/playwright Ossie Davis in 2004.

Four years in the making, this project was made possible when Andrew W. Mellon Foundation donated $10 million to The City University of New York that was earmarked for use across CUNY’s 25 campuses. Of that amount, $3 million went to the Black, Race and Ethnic Studies (BRESI) program (of which Greene was a part of).

The CBL received a $40,000 grant from BRESI to digitize its archives, which became an 18-month project. Greene oversaw the heavy lifting after hiring co-curators Ellie Meek Tweedy and Lea Byrd with the Medgar Evers College Library Archives duo of Yelena Novitskaya and Tomasz Gubernat also rolling up their sleeves to pour through the CBL’s voluminous trove of audio tapes, video tapes, photos, and other archival information. Sifting through it with that financial cap in mind proved to be a challenge for the team.

“One of our obstacles was that we had so much information that was on cassette and video tapes that had to be converted to MP3s and MP4s,” Greene explained. “We had hundreds of photos and videotapes and deciding which ones to use was a challenge. There were limits to doing an exhibition on-line — some of the tapes we wanted to use were too long, so we had to use excerpts. We had a lot of information that we could not use for an online exhibit.”

Harry Belafonte
Actor/activist Belafonte at a 2015 CBL fundraiser.

And while the end result only starts to scratch the surface of the archives, the moments you experience after going down this rabbit hole of archives really drives home the CBL’s importance, which Greene describes as “…the only center like this in the country that’s done this and people need to know that.”

Fliers from myriad Black Writers’ Conferences dot the archive along with photos of notable names making appearances ranging from former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, late actor/activist Harry Belafonte, storied broadcaster Gil Noble and the late acting duo of Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee to a number of storied literary names including Michael Eric Dyson, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka and Walter Mosley. Multimedia gems include a video of Toni Morrison accepting the Killens Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010.


The importance of what the CBL represents goes beyond informing people that this organization is documenting the work of artists and writers and reaching all levels of the community and the general public. It also represents a defense against the assault literature and history are being subjected to across the country.

“We need courses and curriculum that zero in on Black literature, because our country is not there yet and we’re going in an opposite direction where they’re trying to dilute the literature that’s there,” Greene said. “They’re changing and trying to erase the story, so we need this more than ever. And I hope seeing this exhibit will help people understand why we need this and to look at how rich the literature and programming representing what the center has done over many years is.”

Black History Month event with QR Code
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For more information on the Center for Black Literature launch event, please click here.

For our full calendar of Black History Month events, please click here.