Arthur Alfonso Schomburg

Jul 21st, 2014 | By | Category: Education, Social Sciences
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Arthur Alfonso Schomburg1874-1938 Arthur Alfonso Schomburg was a pioneering historian and scholar who helped lay the foundations for the field of African and African American studies. He dedicated his life to collecting and sharing books, papers, and artifacts about the black experience, and to promoting the achievements of people of African descent.

Challenge to Scholarship

Schomburg was born on January 24, 1874, in Puerto Rico. His mother, Mary Joseph, never married his father, Carlos Federico Schomburg, who was of mixed German and Puerto Rican heritage. Schomburg was raised mostly by his mother, a midwife and washerwoman originally from St. Croix. When one of his elementary school teachers claimed that black people had no history and no heroes, Schomburg took it as a challenge. Later, as a member of a literary club in Puerto Rico, he delved into the history of black Puerto Ricans in order to prove to the white and Hispanic members of the club that black Puerto Ricans were just as accomplished. With this effort, Schomburg began a lifelong quest to promote the history of African people across the globe.

At age 17, Schomburg decided to leave the Caribbean for America, and in 1891, he settled into a Puerto Rican and Cuban community in Manhattan. In New York, Schomburg worked as a bellhop, elevator operator, printer, and porter; at night, he attended classes at Manhattan Central High School. During his first years in America, Schomburg became politically active, serving as the secretary of a group called Las Dos Antillas (The Two Islands), which supported struggles for independence in Cuba and Puerto Rico. In 1895, Schomburg married Bessie Hatcher, an African American woman from Virginia, and the two settled in San Juan Hill, a black neighborhood popular with other Puerto Ricans. The young couple had three sons, but when Bessie died in 1900, the children were sent to live with her relatives. The following year, Schomburg took a job working as a messenger in a law firm, and not long after, married Elizabeth Morrow Taylor, another African American woman from the south. Together they had two sons, but sadly, she, too, died young, and their sons went to live with her family. In 1898, when the Spanish American War resulted in American control over Puerto Rico and Cuba, Schomburg became disillusioned with Caribbean nationalism and turned his attention to the broader experience of people of African descent.

A Legacy via Libraries

In 1906, Schomburg took a job in the mailing department of the Latin American section of the Bankers Trust Company on Wall Street where he worked steadily for the next 23 years. He became increasingly active in El Sol de Cuba, a Masonic lodge with mostly black membership. After becoming the lodge’s secretary, and taking up the task of organizing its papers, books, and archives, he began collecting all manner of documents related to the history of black masons. By 1911, Schomburg had become lodge master of El Sol de Cuba. That same year, at age 37, he became a founding member of the Negro Society for Historical Research, a group that aimed to promote black literary and artistic expression. Schomburg became the society’s secretary and treasurer, and assisted with the compilation of its library. At the same time, his own library, accrued with a thrifty diligence, was vying for space with Schömberg, his third wife, also a southern black woman whom he wed in 1914, and three more children. However, his home life didn’t prevent him from increasing his activities. He was also active in the American Negro Academy, along with prominent black intellectuals like WE.B. Du Bois. In 1920, he became the president of the Academy and held that title until the group disbanded in 1929.

Through his involvement with these varied civic groups, Schomburg became a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and in raising awareness of black culture and history. He was close with poet Claude McKay and writer Langston Hughes, and corresponded frequently with Du Bois. Even though Schomburg was largely self-educated and never attained a high school or college degree, he wrote extensively, lectured frequently, and continually added resources to his collections. His research and library, assets he was always willing to share, were of essential importance to other intellectuals of the movement. By 1925, he possessed more than 5,000 books, manuscripts, pamphlets, and papers.

In 1926, Schomburg’s collection was purchased, through a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, to help establish the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints collection at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. Beginning in 1930, Schomburg built a second significant library of African American works and history for Fisk University in Tennessee, locating and acquiring some 4,500 volumes in a little over a year. In 1932, Schomburg became the curator of his own collection at the New York Public Library and worked relentlessly to expand it. However, his health began to fail in 1936, declined in 1938, and Schomburg died on June 10th of that year.

In 1940, the library division was renamed The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. At present, it contains more than five million items, and is one of the world’s leading research facilities devoted to African and African American studies. “The Negro has been a man without a history because he has been considered a man without a worthy culture,” Schomburg once wrote. It was his goal to show that black culture was rich and vibrant, that black history was long and full of heroes, and to encourage blacks to write that history themselves. The Schomburg Center maintains his legacy, and has also ensured that his dream is kept alive. The Center hosts seminars, workshops, and a performing arts program, and its changing exhibitions continue to explore the history and culture of people of African descent.

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