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On This Day in History, January 24: A Pioneer of Black History

When Arthur Schomburg and his family lived in a rowhouse at 105 Kosciusko St. in Brooklyn, one of his sons described the state of the house: “There were books from the cellar to the top floor, in every room, including the bathroom.”

When Schomburg moved to New York from Puerto Rico at the age of 17, he was stung by the remark of a teacher who told him that “Negroes have no history.” That prompted the young black man to dedicate his life to proving the teacher wrong.

Arthur (Arturo) Schomburg was born in San Juan, PR, on Jan. 24, 1874, to a mother from St. Croix, Virgin Islands, with African roots, and a white father with German roots. He was educated in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

In 1925 he wrote the essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past.” In it was his opinion, “The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future. History must restore what slavery took away.”

Schomburg went to work. He collected books, manuscripts, prints, photos, letters and any other evidence he could find. In 1926, his collection — 10,000 pieces at the time — was installed in the New York Public Library’s 135th Street branch in Harlem, forming the core of what is now the renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

His collection in Harlem proved a valuable source of material for the creative writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance — Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and others. In 1931, Schomburg became curator of his own collection at the 135th Street library.

Schomburg married three times and fathered six sons and a daughter. It was after he married his third wife that he moved to Brooklyn. It is said that there were so many books filling the rooms in the Brooklyn house that Mrs. Schomburg gave her husband a choice — the books would go, or she would.

A large portion of Schomburg’s collection was purchased and given to the library with a grant from the Carnegie Corp. Among the Schomburg Center’s gems are a first edition of the collected poems of Phillis Wheatley, the gifted African servant girl who lived in Boston in the 1700s. There are collections of African tribal music and even Ku Klux Klan reports and titles such as “The Negro, A Beast.” Most of Schomburg’s books carry his personal bookplate, with an engraving of a slave on his knees in chains. The center was expanded in 1980 and has now grown to more than five million items.

In his final years, Schomburg showed disappointment in the outlook for American blacks. “I am becoming very doubtful of the Negro finding a place for himself in the next quarter of a century,” he told a friend a year before he died in Brooklyn on June 10, 1938. At a memorial service he was paid tribute as “wiser than we knew, a maker of scholars, a pioneer on the cultural frontier of a new race.”

January 24, 2012 - 9:47am


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