Scholar, Historian, Activist and Collector
Arturo Alfonzo Schomburg
During January Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is celebrated in the United States. It’s a time set aside to commemorate his life, and most importantly, to remember his contributions to the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1960s). King, in a civil disobedient manner, fought hard to demonstrate that the rights of African-Americans mattered, just as much as those of white people.
One of the individuals who labored, enhancing the commentary and activism upon which Dr. King pursued his life’s mission was Arturo A. Schomburg (1874-1938), Father of Black History. While Schomburg’s endeavors took place more than 120 years ago, they were instrumental and created a legacy for the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.
BEFORE Martin Luther King …Arturo A. Schomburg
Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, January 24, 1874, Schomburg’s mother was a black woman originally from St. Croix, and his father was a Puerto Rican of German heritage. He attended San Juan’s Instituto Popular, where he learned commercial printing, and St. Thomas College in the Virgin Islands, where he studied Negro Literature.
Schomburg was a self-proclaimed Afro-Borinqueño (black Puerto Rican) whose fervent pursuit of African history was attributed to a teacher who told him, “Negroes have no history, no heroes, or great moments.” That auspicious moment set Schomburg on a path to invalidate those comments. He deliberately dedicated his life to the black liberation movement, collecting, documents and artifacts as well as speaking about the absent yet rich history of the African Diaspora.
From Puerto Rico to New York
In 1891 Schomburg migrated to New York City, specifically Harlem, where he became involved in the Harlem Renaissance, the independence movements for Cuba and Puerto Rica. He was a member of the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico, a group of Cubans and Puerto Ricans, who sought independence from Spain. He was secretary of Las Dos Antillas, an organization that worked for the independence of both Cuba and Puerto Rico. A year later he became a Mason with El Sol de Cuba #38, a Spanish-speaking lodge comprised of Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants and there are conflicting dates regarding when he become the Master of El Sol de Cuba #38 (1911/1918/1922). Disillusion by the lack of progress towards and independent Cuba and Puerto Rico, Schomburg changed the Masonic group’s name to Prince Hall Lodge, honoring the first US black freemason (Prince Hall).
Schomburg took on a variety of jobs, while living in New York. In 1896 he began teaching Spanish (1901 to 1906) and continued his interest in studying the role blacks played in Spanish history; he also served as a messenger and clerk for Pryor, Mellis and Harris (law firm) and in 1906 he worked for the Bankers Trust Company.
He married Elizabeth Hatcher of Staunton, Virginia, June 30, 1895, with whom he had three sons, Maximo Gomez, Arthur Alfonso Jr. and Kingsley Guarionex. Hatcher died in 1900 and Schomburg married Elizabeth Morrow Taylor of Williamsburg, North Carolina, Mar. 17, 1902, with whom he had two children, Reginald Stanton and Nathaniel Jose Schomburg.
Scholar, Historian and Activist
During 1904 Schomburg’s first known article, ‘Is Hayti Decadent?’ was published in The Unique Advertiser. In 1912 he co-edited (Daniel A. Payne Murray) “Encyclopedia of the Colored Race. A year later, 1913, speaking to a group of black educators at Cheyney University, Schomburg promoted the inclusion of black history throughout the U.S.’s educational system. He was a contributing writer for Crisis Magazine (official publication of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research with John Edward Bruce and was president of the American Negro Academy.
In 1924 the African American registry described Schomburg as dedicated to revealing and reinterpreting the African Diaspora. He studied the history of Africans in the Indies (Caribbean Islands). While in Europe, he researched the priceless treasures of African history, meticulously collecting data about enslaved Africans (Negro Brotherhood) in Seville, Spain.
Schomburg had a vast collection of African history that totaled more than 10,000 documents. His collection included more than 5,000 books; 3,000 manuscripts; 2,000 etchings, paintings, play bills and several thousand pamphlets. The Carnegie Corporation purchased Schomburg’s extensive collection for $10,000 and it was added to the New York Public Library (NYPL) – 135th Street branch in 1926. With the money he received, he traveled around the world in search of more information. His collection was added to the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints, where he became curator of the special division from 1932 until his death on June 8, 1938. In 1940, the division was renamed to the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature, History and Prints.
His documents can be found at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, which “is recognized as one of the leading institutions focusing exclusively on African-American, African Diaspora, and African experiences,” says the NYPL website.
Schomburg is one of the world’s most renowned scholars of African history. He worked tirelessly to restore Africa’s presence in the human commentary, replacing what slavery (enslavement) took away.
Born 141 years ago, Arturo A. Schomburg …amazingly courageous, dedicated advanced the equality of persons of Africans descent. His legacy lives on…