Blockson, Charles LeRoy 1933–
Charles LeRoy Blockson 1933–
Charles L. Blockson has distinguished himself as a historian dedicated to black history. His commitment to black history extended to genealogy, and he published the seminal Black Genealogy with Ron Fry in 1977. Blockson also amassed one of the largest private collections of African-American history in the United States, a collection he donated to Temple University in 1984. In the mid-to-late 1980s, he compiled a number of African-American narratives in The Underground Railroad, and created an illustrated map of the railroad for National Geographic. He has likewise worked diligently to promote the preservation of landmarks central to African-American history. Blockson continues to lecture internationally and is considered one of the foremost experts on the Underground Railroad.
Charles LeRoy Blockson was born on December 16, 1933, in Norristown, Pennsylvania, to Charles E. Blockson and Annie Parker Blockson. He became ill with pneumonia and scarlet fever as a child, and wasn’t expected to live. Blockson also developed a lisp, which made him feel self-conscious. He helped his mother with chores at home and worked with his father, who owned a painting and plastering business, during the summer. Despite his early illness, he became a physically strong child and participated in sports at school in his spare time.
Blockson loved books from an early age, and learned about African-American history from listening to his grandfather sing. “One Sunday afternoon, I asked him what he was singing about. He said he was singing about the Underground Railroad,” Blockson recalled in a background interview for Safe Harbor, a film about the Underground Railroad. Block-son’s great grandfather, James Blockson, had been a slave in Delaware, and had escaped into Pennsylvania on the Underground Railroad. “Our textbooks in those days said that all the slaves were happy on the plantations,” Blockson noted in Safe Harbor. “But I said to myself as I started to get into it, ‘if the enslaved people were happy, why did they run away?’”
Blockson later recalled another childhood experience that led to his zeal in documenting African-American contributions to the history. As a young boy, he asked his white teacher about the importance of African-Americans in building the nation. She told him, “Negroes have no history,” quoted Frank Whelan in the
Born Charles LeRoy Blockson on December 16, 1933, in Norristown, PA; son of Charles E. Block son and Annie Parker Blockson; married Elizabeth Parker (divorced); children: Noelle. Education: Pennsylvania State University, BA, 1956. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1957-58.
Career: Norristown High School, advisor, 1970s; author, 1975-; Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia, cofounder, 1976; Pennsylvania Black History Committee, director, 1976-; Pennsylvania Afro-American Historical Board, director, 1976-; Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, curator, 1984-; Pennsylvania State Historical and Record Advisory Board and Black History Advisory Board, director, 1980s-; launched project to erect sixty-four historical markers commemorating the contribution of African Americans to Philadelphia, 1989; Black Writer’s Conference in Paris, France, moderator, 1992; lecturer, including tours in the West Indies and South America for the United States Information Agency, 1990s-; organizer of black study programs for various schools and colleges, 1990s-; Valley Forge African-American Revolutionary Soldier Monument, chairman, 1990s-.
Selected memberships: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, board member, 1976-83; Pennsylvania State University Alumni Council, 1982-; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Authors Guild; Pennsylvania Abolition Society, former president; Urban League of Pennsylvania; Underground Railroad Advisory Committee.
Selected awards: Alumni Fellow Award, Pennsylvania State University, 1979; Lifetime Achievement Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1987; Whitney Young Human Relations Award, Philadelphia Urban League, 1991.
Addresses: Home —RO. Box 133, Hancock Rd., Gwynedd, PA 19436. Office —Sullivan Hall, Temple University, Broad and Berks Streets, Philadelphia, PA 19122.
Morning Call. “They were born to serve white people.” Fifty years later, the teacher phoned Blockson to apologize. “Charles, you have taught us all something about ourselves and our place in history.”
Blockson excelled in football and track at Norristown High School, where he became Pennsylvania’s shot-put and discuss champion from 1950 to 1952. Because of his athletic skills, 60 colleges offered him scholarships. He chose Pennsylvania State University where he majored in physical education and played fullback with Roosevelt Grier and Lenny Moore. Later he turned down a chance to play professional football with the New York Giants. Blockson served in the Army for two years after college and following his discharge, he started a janitorial service.
In 1972 Blockson became an advisor for human relations and cultural affairs at the Norristown Area High School. Working under the school’s superintendent, he taught African-American history, recruited faculty, and helped to diffuse sensitive race issues. He helped found the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia in 1976. Blockson also continued to devote time to building his collection of African-American history books and tracing his family’s genealogy. In 1977 he published Black Genealogy with Ron Fry, a book that encouraged African Americans to trace their own family lines. “If the search makes you prouder to be black, prouder to be you,” Blockson wrote in Black Genealogy, “then it’s been successful…. You’ll be joining a growing legion of blacks all trying to do the same thing—regain some pride in a history that so many people have tried to make us forget or be ashamed of.”
In 1984 Blockson donated his private book collection to the Special Collection Department of Temple University Libraries. The collection, which now stands at over 150,000 items including books, photographs, drawings, sheet music, posters, and broadsides, was once housed in Blockson’s basement. This vast collection covers and documents four hundred years of African-American experience and includes African Bibles, correspondence with Haitian revolutionaries, narratives by Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass, and first editions of writings by Phyllis Wheatley and W.E.B. Du Bois. The collection also proved essential to founding a doctorate program for African-American studies at Temple University.
In 1987 Blockson published The Underground Railroad: First Person Narratives of Escapes to Freedom in the North. “His focus on the emotion and uncertainty of escape makes this work a handy primer on the pain, daring, and drama of the slaves’ flight,” wrote Thomas J. Davis in the Library Journal. Blockson also championed the preservation of Underground Railroad history. “It is imperative that we preserve the former sites connected with the Underground Railroad,” Blockson said in Safe Harbor. “That we reinterpret the Underground Railroad to include all people of all races, so that we can walk upon this American earth in sisterhood and brotherhood.”
Blockson has been a vocal critic of efforts to obscure and soft sell African-American history. In 2002 he spoke out against the Insurance Company of North America, who denied that it profited by insuring slave ships in the 18th and 19th centuries. “Philadelphia insured more sailing vessels dealing in slavery than any other port besides Boston,” he told Joseph N. DiStefano in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They were damn well involved.”
Blockson likewise criticized the United States Park Service’s plans to construct a nine million dollar pavilion to house the Liberty Bell. The problem lies with the site on which the pavilion is being constructed: in 2001 it was discovered that George Washington housed his slaves on the site when he lived in Philadelphia during the 1790s. Washington was president at the time and slavery was illegal in Pennsylvania. “Slavery was about money and today tourism is about money.” Blockson told Linn Washington, Jr. in the Philadelphia Tribune. “Are they going to tell the truth to tourists? There should be no more lies. Maybe the crack in the Bell is for hypocrisy!”
Pennsylvania’s Black History, Portfolio Associates, 1975.
(with Ron Fry) Black Genealogy, Prentice-Hall, 1977
The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, Flame International, 1981.
The Underground Railroad: First Person Narratives of Escapes to Freedom in the North, Prentice-Hall, 1987.
A Commented Bibliography of One Hundred and One Influential Books by and about People of African Descent, 1556-1982, A. Gerits and Songs (Amsterdam), 1989.
The Journey of John W. Mosley: An African-American Pictorial, Quantum Leap Publishers, 1993.
Hippocrene Guide to the Underground Railroad, Hippocrene Books, 1994.
Damn Rare: The Memoirs of an African-American Bibliophile, Quantum Leap Publishers, 1998.
African Americans in Pennsylvania: Above Ground and Underground: An Illustrated Guide, RB Books, 2001.
Blockson, Charles L., and Ron Fry, Black Genealogy, Prentice-Hall, 1977, p. 9.
Library Journal, November 15, 1987.
Morning Call, August 20, 1995, p. Fl.
Philadelphia Inquirer, May 9, 2002.
Philadelphia Tribune, April 2, 2002.
“Charles L(eroy) Blockson,” Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (October 29, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained from a transcript of Safe Harbor, PBS television program, 2002.
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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