Harlem library renamed after Harry Belafonte

Harry Belafonte.
Associated Press / Steffi Loos, File

The New York Public Library and the City’s Mayor, Bill de Blasio, on Monday said that the library has decided to adopt a new name for Harlem’s 115th Street Library in honor of legendary Caribbean American singer, songwriter, actor and social activist, Harry Belafonte.

The Office of the Mayor said that the Executive Committee of the Library’s Board of Trustees voted to name the branch the Harry Belafonte –115th Street Library.

“Harry Belafonte has a storied career as both an artist and an advocate for New York City,” said Mayor de Blasio. “His drive and initiative have had major impact in the realms of social justice, civil rights, culture, and activism, especially in the Harlem community.

“It is my honor and privilege to work with the New York Public Library to honor Mr. Belafonte and celebrate the life and accomplishment of this invaluable New Yorker,” he added.

New York Public Library President Tony Marx said the Library was “proud to honor legendary civil rights leader and entertainer Harry Belafonte, whose Harlem roots and deep dedication to both social justice and the spread of knowledge make him a perfect namesake for the 115th Street Library.

“This branch and all of our libraries strengthen New York City’s diverse communities by offering free and open access to information and opportunity – values that Mr. Belafonte has stood for over his long and distinguished career,” Marx said. “We thank the Mayor for his support in celebrating the legacy of this incredible New Yorker.”

Belafonte thanked the Mayor for “this anointing,” adding that he was also grateful to the New York Public Library system for “its invaluable service to the community and for this personal honor.

“On March 1, 90 years ago, I was born here,” Belafonte said. “Harlem holds a very special place in my heart, and I’m so honored that I will now have a special place in Harlem.

“A library is a place for people to come together, to learn about their world and explore new ideas, things I’ve tried to do my entire life,” he added. “I am hopeful that when people come to this place that will now bear my name, they will be inspired to learn about some of the pursuits I’ve held most dear — music, writing and social justice.”

Belafonte, who was born on March 1, 1927, as Harold George Bellanfanti, Jr.] at Lying-in Hospital in Harlem, New York, is the son of Melvine (née Love), a housekeeper of Jamaican descent, and Harold George Bellanfanti, Sr., a Martiniquan who worked as a chef.

His mother was born in Jamaica, the child of a Scottish white mother and a black father. His father also was born in Jamaica, the child of a black mother and Dutch Jewish father of Sephardi origins, according to Wikipedia.

Belafonte is considered one of the most successful African-American pop stars in history.

He was dubbed the “King of Calypso” for popularizing the Caribbean musical style with an international audience in the 1950s.

His breakthrough album Calypso (1956) is the first million selling LP by a single artist.

But Belafonte is perhaps best known for singing “The Banana Boat Song”, with its signature lyric “Day-O”, according to Wikipedia.

Belafonte has recorded in many genres, including blues, folk, gospel, show tunes, and American standards.

He has also starred in several films, most notably in Otto Preminger’s hit musical Carmen Jones (1954), Island in the Sun (1957) and Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow (1959).

Belafonte was an early supporter of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, and one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s confidants, according to Wikipedia.

Throughout his career, Belafonte he has been an advocate for political and humanitarian causes, such as the anti-apartheid movement and USA for Africa.

Since 1987 he has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.

In recent years he has been a vocal critic of the policies of both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidential administrations. Harry Belafonte now acts as the American Civil Liberties Union celebrity ambassador for juvenile justice issues, Wikipedia says.

Belafonte has won three Grammy Awards, including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award.

In 1989, he received the Kennedy Center Honors. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1994. In 2014, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy’s 6th Annual Governors Awards.

In March 2014, Belafonte was awarded an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music in Boston.

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