January 24, 1874 Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, historian, writer, and activist, was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico. While he was in grade school, one of his teachers claimed that blacks had no history, heroes, or accomplishments.
Schomburg was inspired to prove him wrong, later he was educated at St. Thomas College in the Virgin Islands where he studied Negro literature. He immigrated to New York City in 1891 and in 1896 began teaching Spanish. In 1911, Schomburg co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research and he later became president of the American Negro Academy.
Schomburg was a Puerto Rican of African and German descent who moved to the United States and researched and raised awareness of the great contributions that Afro-Latin Americans and Afro-Americans have made to society. He was an important intellectual figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Schomburg was born in the town of Santurce, Puerto Rico (now part of San Juan), to Mary Joseph, a freeborn black midwife from St. Croix, and Carlos Federico Schomburg, a German merchant living in Puerto Rico.
Schomburg was educated at San Juan’s Instituto Popular, where he learned commercial printing. At St. Thomas College in the Danish-ruled Virgin Islands, he studied Negro Literature. Over the years, he collected literature, art, slave narratives, and other materials of African history, which was purchased to become the basis of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, named in his honor, at the New York Public Library (NYPL) branch in Harlem.
In 1925, Schomburg published his widely read and influential essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past.” In 1928, the New York Public Library system purchased his collection of literature, art, and other materials and appointed him curator of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art (later renamed the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture).
Schomburg died June 8, 1938 and his name is enshrined in the Ring of Genealogy at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan. Schomburg’s biography, “Arthur Alfonse Schomburg: Black Bibliophile & Collector,” was published in 1989.
Schomburg immigrated to New York City on April 17, 1891, and settled in the Harlem section of Manhattan. He continued his studies to untangle the African thread of history in the fabric of the Americas. After experiencing racial discrimination in the US, he began calling himself “Afroborinqueño” which means “Afro-Puerto Rican”. He became a member of the “Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico” and became an active advocate of Puerto Rico’s and Cuba’s independence from Spain.
On June 30, 1895, Schomburg married Elizabeth Hatcher of Staunton, Virginia. She had come to New York as part of a wave of migration from the South that would increase in the 20th century and be known as the Great Migration. They had three sons: Maximo Gomez; Arthur Alfonso, Jr. and Kingsley Guarionex Schomburg. After Elizabeth died in 1900, Schomburg married Elizabeth Morrow Taylor of Williamsburg, a village in Rockingham County, North Carolina. They were married on March 17, 1902, and had two sons: Reginald Stanton and Nathaniel José Schomburg.
In 1896, Schomburg began teaching Spanish in New York. From 1901 to 1906 Schomburg was employed as messenger and clerk in the law firm of Pryor, Mellis and Harris, New York City. In 1906, he began working for the Bankers Trust Company. Later, he became a supervisor of the Caribbean and Latin American Mail Section, and held that until he left in 1929.
While supporting himself and his family, Schomburg began his intellectual work of writing about Caribbean and African-American history. His first known article, “Is Hayti Decadent?”, was published in 1904 in The Unique Advertiser. In 1909 he wrote Placido, a Cuban Martyr, a short pamphlet about the poet and independence fighter Gabriel de la Concepción Valdés.
In 1911, Schomburg co-founded with John Edward Bruce the Negro Society for Historical Research, to create an institute to support scholarly efforts. For the first time, it brought together African, West Indian and Afro-American scholars.
Schomburg was later to become the President of the American Negro Academy, founded in Washington, DC in 1874, which championed black history and literature.This was a period of founding of societies to encourage scholarship in African-American history. In 1915, Dr. Carter G. Woodson co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) and began publishing the Journal of Negro History.
Schomburg became involved in the Harlem Renaissance movement, which spread to other African-American communities in the U.S. The concentration of blacks in Harlem from across the US and Caribbean led to a flowering of arts, intellectual and political movements. He was the co-editor of the 1912 edition of Daniel Alexander Payne Murray’s Encyclopedia of the Colored Race.
In 1916 Schomburg published what was the first notable bibliography of African-American poetry, A Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry.
In March 1925 Schomburg published his essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past” in an issue of Survey Graphic devoted to the intellectual life of Harlem. It had widespread distribution and influence. The autodidact historian John Henrik Clarke told of being so inspired by the essay that at the age of 17 he left home in Columbus, Georgia, to seek out Mr. Schomburg to further his studies in African history. Alain Locke included the essay in his edited collection The New Negro.
The NYPL and the librarian of the 135th Street Branch, Ernestine Rose, the NYPL purchased his extensive collection of literature, art and other materials in 1926. They appointed Schomburg curator of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art, named in his honor, at the 135th Street Branch (Harlem) of the Library. It was later renamed the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Between 1931 and 1932 Schomburg served as Curator of the Negro Collection at the library of Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, helping direct their acquisition of materials. During 1932 he traveled to Cuba. While there he met various Cuban artists and writers, and acquired more material for his studies.
He was granted an honorary membership of the Men’s Business Club in Yonkers, New York. He also held the position of treasurer for the Loyal Sons of Africa in New York and was elevated being the past master of Prince Hall Lodge Number 38, Free and Accepted Masons (F.A.M.) and Rising Sun Chapter Number 4, R.A.M.
Following dental surgery, Schomburg became ill and died in Madison Park Hospital, Brooklyn, New York, on June 8, 1938. He is buried in grave 13785 in the Locust Grove section of Cypress Hill Cemetery.
By the 1920s Schomburg had amassed a collection which consisted of artworks, manuscripts, rare books, slave narratives and other artifacts of Black history. In 1926 the New York Public Library purchased his collection for $10,000 with the help of a grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The collection formed the cornerstone of the Library’s Division of Negro History at its 135th Street Branch in Harlem.
The library appointed Schomburg curator of the collection, which was named in his honor: the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Schomburg used his proceeds from the sale to fund travel to Spain, France, Germany and England, to seek out more pieces of black history to add to the collection. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante named Schomburg on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
To honor Schomburg, Hampshire College awards a $30,000 merit-based scholarship in his name for students who “demonstrate promise in the areas of strong academic performance and leadership at Hampshire College and in the community.”Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s work served as an inspiration to Puerto Ricans, Latinos and Afro-American alike. T
he power of knowing about the great contribution that Afro-Latin Americans and Afro-American have made to society, helped continuing work and future generations in the Civil rights movement.