August 17, 2017

Discover Malcolm X's Legacy at Harlem's Shabazz Center

photo by: Beyond My Ken/Wikimedia Commons

The Audubon Ballroom was built in 1912 and designed by architect Thomas W. Lamb.

On February 21, 1965, gunfire rang out at a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) at the Audubon Ballroom in Upper Harlem. OAAU founder Malcolm X was approached by three gunmen and shot at close range, with his daughter and pregnant wife sitting just a few feet away. He was quickly transported to the nearby Vanderbilt Clinic of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 3:30 p.m. X’s attackers were later identified as members of the Nation of Islam, which he had left and denounced the previous year.

After the assassination, the Audubon Ballroom fell into disuse and disrepair. Neighborhood residents had used the circa-1912 structure as a vaudeville house and synagogue in the decades before African-American activists began holding meetings there. Due to unpaid back taxes, the City of New York seized the building in 1967, and it was purchased by the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center shortly thereafter, with the intention of demolishing the entire building and replacing it with a medical research center.

This proposal was met with dismay and resistance by X’s widow, Dr. Betty Shabazz, and other grassroots groups, who wanted to see the building preserved as a memorial to the fallen leader and a permanent symbol of the African-American struggle for equality. The Shabazz family struck a deal with Columbia University, ensuring that the space where the Black Nationalist leader drew his last breaths would become a memorial and educational center for those looking to learn more about his life and legacy.

photo by: Adam Koford/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A life-sized statue of Malcolm X greets visitors when they first enter the Shabazz Center.

The Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center opened its doors to the public in May of 2005, housing the most extensive collection of information on Malcolm X and Dr. Shabazz anywhere in the world. A 6-foot-4, life-sized statue of Malcolm X greets visitors when they first walk in, and a multimedia center on the left- and right-hand walls features interactive video kiosks designed to be accessible to a wide range of visitors, from school-aged children to adults.

Through the kiosks, guests can browse photographic and archival footage, including documents and interviews with Malcolm X and Dr. Shabazz, family and travel photos, historic scenes of Harlem, and postcards that X sent to friends. On the upstairs ballroom level, artist Daniel Galvez was commissioned to paint murals depicting his life.

Although the Shabazz Center is currently the only memorial honoring Malcolm X as a historical figure, the National Trust is attempting to revitalize a space that will serve as a tribute to his childhood and early life. The Malcolm X/Ella Little-Collins House, located in Boston, which has been largely vacant for the past 30 years, was where Malcom X lived with his half-sister, Ella Little-Collins, from the ages of 14 to 21. It is currently owned by her son, Rodnell Collins. The Trust is working with Collins to raise the $1.4 million needed to rehabilitate the structure and transform it into a home for graduate students studying African-American history, social justice, or civil rights.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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