Diggin’ Into the Past: Arthur Schomburg

“The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future…History must restore what slavery took away.” – Arthur Schomburg

Puerto Rican historian, writer, activist, collector, bibliophile, educator
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, circa 1896 Source: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, General Research and Reference, New York Public Library

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg or Arthur Schomburg (1874-1938)  was a Puerto Rican historian, writer, activist, bibliophile, and collector who immigrated to New York in 1891, and settled in Harlem. Although Carter G. Woodson is most often recognized as the “Father of Black History,” in some circles, that reference is also bestowed upon Schomburg, though most of his acclaim is attributed to his extensive collection of books and artifacts.

One of Schomburg’s earliest childhood memories was of a teacher telling him that black people had no history or record of achievements. In the United States, he often experienced the same racial discrimination as African Americans and began referring to himself as “Afroborinqueño” or Afro-Puerto Rican. These events only motivated him to continue documenting and collecting as much as he could about the history of black people worldwide.

In New York, he taught Spanish, supported his family through various positions, and advocated for Cuba and Puerto Rico’s independence from Spain as a member of the Revolutionary Committee for Puerto Rico. It was also during this time that he began to research and write about Caribbean and African American history. In 1911, he co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research with John Edward Bruce, one of the earliest historical societies to promote African American history. Such an endeavor brought together a cadre of African, West Indian and African American scholars.

Schomburg was an active figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s. Two of his most notable works include A Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry published in 1916 and his essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” first published in the March 1925 issue of the Survey Graphic, which focused on the intellectual life of Harlem. His essay also appeared in Alain Locke’s seminal anthology of essays, fiction, and poetry, The New Negro: An Interpretation (1925).

The energy of the Harlem Renaissance was instrumental in creating opportunities for black professionals and black research collections. Not only was there a demand for books about or written by black writers, there was a demand for professionally trained black librarians and much interest in Schomburg’s personal collection. Schomburg, too, had a joint interest in making his personal collection available to the public, but keeping it in Harlem.

In 1926, the New York Public Library purchased about 5,000 objects from Schomburg’s vast collection of literature, art and cultural materials related to people of African descent. Subsequently, he was appointed curator of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art, which was renamed the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in his honor. During the academic year 1931-1932, Schomburg served as Curator of the Negro Collection at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, assisting in their acquisition and development of collection materials. He later traveled to Cuba, where he met Cuban writers and artists, and acquired more materials for his research and collection.

Today, the Schomburg Center continues to be recognized as one of the most important repositories in the United States, wholly devoted to people of African descent worldwide and continues to be an important cultural force within the Harlem community.

Related:

Diggin’ Into the Past: Black Librarians, Archivists, and Museum Professionals

Carter G. Woodson

Vivian G. Harsh

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