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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 February 2005, 00:35 GMT
How Malcolm X's letters were saved
By Tony Phillips
BBC, New York

So there I was sitting watching a video in the basement of Harlem's Schomburg Center for Black Research. Resting a moment, I leaned back and peered around the room, my eyes resting on two enormous wooden boxes.

Malcolm X
Dubbed America's "angriest man", his letters show a different side
Bold black letters on the side of the boxes clearly spelt out: "Malcolm X". Ideas for programmes rarely present themselves so well packaged.

Three years ago, one of Malcolm X's family left home in up-state New York for a new life in Florida.

She had unwittingly packed up her father's possessions - his letters, speeches, diaries - along with her own. She deposited much of her cargo in a storage facility.

Time passed, she defaulted on the payments and the storage facility owners did what they normally do in these circumstances: they sold off the contents.

A Florida flea market trader bought the contents and unwittingly became the owner of the archive of one of the most significant American leaders of the 20th Century.

Howard Dodson, the director of the Schomburg, was in the office when he received a call from a friend. "Go to eBay. I think I've seen something," his friend said.

Sale halted

There, he discovered Malcolm's letters, speeches and diaries up for sale. Realising that he was onto something the flea market trader had upgraded his goods to an internet auction site.

These were beautiful love letters, warm and funny. I'm sure that his wife Betty would have roared with laughter
Malcolm X's family and friends all leapt into action led by lawyer Joseph Fleming.

Months of legal wrangling ensued and the eBay sale was halted. Undisclosed sums of money were exchanged and the two large wooden crates arrived in the basement of the Schomburg.

I met Ilyasah Shabazz, the third of Malcolm's six daughters, a few months ago at the Schomburg, situated fittingly on Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem. Harlem was where her father honed his electrifying oratorical skills.


Entering the building, people greeted Ilyasah as if they were greeting a relative. Sharing the lift with us, a young man almost bows and claims that he loves her like a sister.

Ilyasah was with her father when he was killed
Ilyasah beside a mural of her father
Her naturally high spirits understandably dissipate when an archivist closes the door on us in a small conference room, leaving us with a small sample from one of the crates: a collection of her father's letters to her mother, two of his diaries and his maroon leather-bound copy of the Koran.

The book rendered Ilyasah speechless. Minutes passed. I imagined that she had drifted off to a place that most of us could barely imagine.

On 21 February, 1965, she was in Harlem's Audobon Ballroom with her mother and two of her sisters when three gunmen in the audience shot her father dead.

As a two-year-old, Ilyasah was too young to remember. Her two older sisters were not nearly as fortunate.

Ilyasah moved from the Koran to the letters. These were beautiful love letters, warm and funny. I'm sure that his wife Betty would have roared with laughter - just like Ilyasah did then.

Her father had shaken her out of her sadness with his love and humour - and this from the man dubbed in his lifetime as "the angriest man in America".

The joy that these recovered possessions brought to Ilyasah was clear to see.

For the rest of us we will soon have our day - all these items from the wooden boxes will become artefacts at the Schomburg's forthcoming Malcolm X exhibition in May, marking what would have been his 80th birthday.

Selling Malcolm X was broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Monday, 7 February at 2000GMT

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