Former Topekan to lead Smithsonian’s museum of African American history, culture

By: - September 30, 2020 5:01 pm
Former Topeka resident Kevin Young, a poet and author, will become director of the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. (Melanie Dunea/Smithsonian Institution)

Former Topeka resident Kevin Young, a poet and author, will become director of the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. (Melanie Dunea/Smithsonian Institution)

TOPEKA — Former Kansan Kevin Young was named Wednesday as director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Young is best known as a poet, author, essayist and editor. He’s published 11 books of poetry, two works of nonfiction and served as editor of 10 other works, including a book coming out this fall, “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song.”

He will start in January at the museum in Washington, D.C. He will remain director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City until December. Since 2016, he’s been poetry editor at The New Yorker magazine and is expected to retain that post.

Young, 49, said he was eager to be part of the museum’s powerful influence on visitors and to reveal the central role of African American culture in the nation’s experience. He wants to further conversations “around Black history, art, liberation and joy.”

“I look forward to directing the National Museum of African American History and Culture in this next phase of leadership, after its founding, opening and dynamic exhibitions and events,” Young said. “Having visited the museum myself with my family, I know what a powerful place it is.”

He was born in Nebraska, but his family lived in six different places before he reached the age of 10. His family settled in Topeka, where he began to pursue writing at age 13 following a summer writing class at Washburn University in Topeka.

He earned degrees at Harvard and Brown universities, and held a two-year fellowship at Stanford University. He taught at Emory University for 11 years.

Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, said Young would bring a mix of scholarship, technological savvy and bold vision.

“As a poet, he understands how the museum fulfilled the dreams of many Americans, and under his leadership the museum will shape the hopes of future generations.”

During his four-year tenure as director of the Schomburg Center, Young secured the Harlem-based archives of Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Sonny Rollins and Fred “Fab 5 Freddy” Brathwaite and the manuscript of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” including a once-lost chapter. At the Schomburg Center, he raised $10 million in grants and donations and bolstered attendance by 40%.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.

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