Elected officials and community leaders gathered on Tuesday morning in St. Albans to break symbolic ground on the long-anticipated African-American Hall of Fame.
Located at Baisley Boulevard and 177th Street, the $20 million hall will educate the community about the role of African-Americans in American culture and serve as a repository for materials about inductees.
Paul Gibson, chairman of the Southern Queens Park Association—the non-profit group that founded Roy Wilkins Park and will run the hall—described Tuesday’s event as the first of several groundbreakings.
“We will have as many groundbreakings as we need to get the darn thing up,” said Gibson, a former deputy mayor who encouraged the city to deed the park to the park association in the 1970s.
Conceived a dozen years ago, the African-American Hall of Fame has progressed in fits and starts.
The park association first formed a committee to research and plan it in 1989. One year later, the hall inducted Roy Wilkins, the former executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, as its first honoree.
Since that time, the hall has inducted former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, actor Ozzie Davis and education expert Dr. Adelaide H. Sanford, who is also a New York State Regent.
In 1998, Borough President Claire Shulman directed $10 million in capital funding to start the first phase of work, which will include a 20,000-square-foot orientation center, classrooms and galleries.
The second phase will expand the hall to 60,000 square feet and add a 400-seat auditorium, library and museum.
The Southern Queens Park Association will administer the hall, while the Department of Cultural Affairs will provide operating assistance. The site, which once contained Navy barracks, is located on land owned by the Parks Department.
Solomon Goodrich, who will step down later this year as the association’s president, will lead development efforts for the new project for the next three years.
The design, which is being developed by Manhattan-based Helpern Architects, is to be finalized in the next several months. Construction should begin in 2003 and the hall could be open the following year.
According to Murray Levi, an architect with Helpern, designing the space is no small challenge.
“This really is a unique project,” he said. “We are developing a design that will include spiritual and iconographic elements that are evocative of the African and African-American experiences. It also must communicate the progress that African-Americans have made since the civil rights era.”
Perhaps the largest obstacle is money. Half of the $20 million needed to complete the hall still has to be found.
“We have a very small budget and a very ambitious program. It will be a challenge,” Levi noted.
Percy Sutton, who served as Manhattan’s first black borough president and has been inducted into the hall, reserved special praise for Shulman at Tuesday’s ceremony.
“Hopefully she can tell you how many people attacked her for giving the $10 million for the hall of fame when there are so many demands out there,” Sutton said jokingly. “She must have a lot of love for this community.”
Shulman said that she was initially reluctant to support the project, but was won over by the enthusiasm of its supporters. “This is extremely important to the neighborhood. It will be built with sweat equity and love.”
She encouraged state and federal elected officials to help find the additional $10 million to finish the second phase.
“The city is going to be in very serious difficult times in terms of finances,” Shulman noted, referring to the budget crunch following the September 11th terrorist attacks. “But we want this to be completed. This is a neighborhood that richly deserves this hall of fame.”