Schomburg, Arthur Alfonso 1874–1938
Arthur Alfonso Schomburg 1874–1938
Historian, curator, bibliophile
Arthur Schomburg’s belief that “history must restore what slavery took away” led to his collecting one of the world’s largest libraries of African American books, prints, and artifacts. Schomburg’s private collection became the basis for the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library’s Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints, which opened in 1925. In 1940, the Division was renamed the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature, History, and Prints in honor of its founder, and in 1972, it received its present title of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The Schomburg Center is recognized today as the world’s leading and most prestigious repository for materials and artifacts on black cultural life.
A lack of verifiable records and a discrepancy between the documents that do exist and what Schomburg himself has said about his early years in Puerto Rico make it difficult to provide an accurate account of his childhood. In her biography Arthur Alfonso Schomburg: Black Bibliophile & Collector, Elinor Des Vemey Sinnette explained that “much about Schomburg’s early life in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is a mystery, and there is considerable evidence to suggest that he wished it to remain so.” As a result, she noted that “one can only speculate about Schomburg’s early life.”
Sinnette’s research led her to records in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which reveal that Schomburg was born on January 24, 1874, and baptized Arturo Alfonso four days later. Sinnette found that the baptismal record at the Church of San Francisco de Asis in Santurce, a section of San Juan, indicates that Schomburg was the hijo natural, or out-of-wedlock son of a 30-year-old laundress of African descent from St. Thomas. Schomburg’s father, Carlos Federico Schomburg, was a merchant born in Germany.
Both parents were considered extranjeros, or foreigners. Because of conflicting records, it is difficult to ascertain if Schomburg attended primary schools in San Juan or was self-educated. A well-known anecdote attributes Schomburg’s ardent pursuit of black history to a fifth-grade teacher who told him that “black people had no history, no heroes, no great moments.” Schomburg himself said that his interest in black history was fired by a literary club he belonged to in Puerto Rico.
For some time during his childhood, Schomburg lived with his mother’s family in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. There he became interested in the Puerto Rican independence move
Born Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, January 24,1874, in San Juan, Puerto Rico; later changed name to Arthur; died June 10, 1938, in New York, NY; son of Maria Josepha and Carlos Federico Schomburg; married Elizabeth (Bessie) Hatcher, 1895, (died 1900) Elizabeth Morrow Taylor, 1902, Elizabeth Green; children: Maximo Gomez, Arthur Alfonso, Jr., Kingsley Guarionex, Reginald Stanfield, Nathaniel Jose, Fernando, Dolores Marie, Placido Carlos.
Pryor, Mellis and Harris (law firm), New York, NY, clerk-messenger, 1901-06; Bankers Trust Company, New York, NY, clerk messenger, 1906-29; Fisk University, Negro Collection, curator, 1929-32; New York Public Library, Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints, curator, 1932-38.
Member: Negro Society for Historical Research (cofounder), American Negro Academy (president), Los Independientes, Las Dos Antillas (founder and secretary), El Sol de Cuba [Masonic] Lodge, Number 38 (later Prince Hall Lodge), Grand Lodge of the State of New York (Grand Secretary), Men’s Sunday Club, New York National Urban League (member, board of directors), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Awards: Harmon foundation award, 1927.
ment as well as other movements throughout the Caribbean, especially in Cuba and Haiti. Sinnette speculates that Schomburg may possibly have met and been inspired by the Puerto Rican revolutionary Ramon Betances during one of his frequent visits to St. Thomas.
Schomburg arrived in New York City on April 17, 1891, and quickly became involved in the Cuban/Puerto Rican working-class community on the lower east side of Manhattan. He joined Los Independientes, a club actively devoted to aiding Puerto Rico’s movement for independence. Schomburg began learning about Puerto Rico’s heroes and their activities. He also attended meetings where he heard many revolutionary speakers, including the Cuban José Marti and the Puerto Ricans Eugenio Maria de Hostos and Betances.
Not yet 17, Schomburg began attending night school at Manhattan Central High School while working such jobs as an elevator operator, a bellhop, a printer, and a porter. He was present at the meeting when Marti founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Cubano). Within a few months Schomburg helped to organize Las Dos Antillas (The Two Islands) and served as secretary of the group. The club pledged “actively to assist in the independence of Cuba and Puerto Rico,” vowing to remain an active organization until both regions attained their independence. Schomburg used the pen name “Guarionex” for his writings during this time.
In spring of 1892, Schomburg went to New Orleans on Las Dos Antillas business. There he came into contact with his first African American community. After José Marti’s death in 1895, and the disbanding of the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1898, Schomburg shifted his allegiance from Puerto Rican liberation to the black freedom movement in the United States. At this time he adopted the Anglicized spelling of his name. His shifting loyalties were also due to his marriage to Elizabeth (Bessie) Hatcher in 1895, and the birth of their three sons by 1900, the year Bessie died.
Schomburg married again in 1902, this time to Elizabeth Morrow Taylor, who gave birth to two more sons. After her death, Schomburg frequently visited his five sons who were living with relatives in the South. There, Sinnette reports, “Schomburg was exposed to the black American experience, enduring the indignity and humiliation of segregated ’Jim Crow’ facilities.” He had also become an initiate in the craft of freemasonry in 1892, and met his life-long friend, the bibliophile and fellow Mason, John Edward Bruce.
Schomburg confronted other aspects of American society that caused his change in perspective. Racial tensions were increasing during the last few years of the nineteenth century, southern states were disenfranchising black voters through literacy tests and poll taxes, and lynchings and race riots were occurring more frequently. Futhermore, U.S. colonization policies regarding Puerto Rico, in Schomburg’s estimation, were patronizing; and, closer to home, the white members of freemasonry lodges in the United States refused to recognize black Masons and declared the Prince Hall Lodge, of which Schomburg was a member, illegitimate.
Over the course of his friendship with John Edward Bruce, who had been born into slavery in 1856, Schomburg began learning, through Bruce’s first-hand accounts, the history of the enslaved Africans in the United States. His tutelage under Bruce’s hands led to their founding the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911. The Society was composed of members from the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean.
In 1914, at Bruce’s suggestion, Schomburg joined the American Negro Academy, “the most prestigious organization dedicated to encouraging research in black history,” according to Sinnette. Schomburg also established friendships with some of the most influential black writers and leaders of the day. His life-long association with W. E. B. DuBois began as early as 1904; in 1911, Schomburg met Alain Locke when he delivered the first address to Negro Society for Historical Research; and it was James Weldon Johnson who encouraged Schomburg to compile the 1915 “Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry,” a 236-item bibliography that has been called a “landmark effort to record the works of black poets.”
Even though Arthur Spingarn criticized Schomburg’s effort as “hastily thrown together,” the work established Schomburg’s early reputation in New York City and inspired Schomburg to continue his reading in black history and to begin acquiring books for his private collection. Sinnette suggested that Schomburg’s motivation for his collecting was threefold: “the need to educate himself, the need to find his personal identity, and the need to prove his ancestors’ rightful place in world history.”
From 1901 through 1906, Schomburg worked as a messenger for a New York City law firm. In 1906, he began work as a messenger for Bankers Trust Company. At the time of his early retirement for health reasons in 1929, he was responsible for Bankers Trust’s foreign mailing section. Three more children were born to Schomburg and his third wife, Elizabeth Green. In 1918, the family and Schomburg’s library moved from W. 140th Street in Manhattan to a house in Brooklyn, New York where Schomburg’s library was kept.
Arthur Schomburg’s contributions to the intellectual ideas of his day could be considered quite radical for his time. As early as 1913, for example, Schomburg argued for the inclusion of black history courses into the educational system of the United States. In a speech to black teachers enrolled in a summer course at Cheyney Institute in Pennsylvania—later published as Racial Integrity: A Plea for the Establishment of a Chair of Negro History in Our Schools, Colleges, etc. —Schomburg recommended that teachers not “revolutionize” but instead “amend” the curriculum to “include the practical history of the Negro race from the dawn of civilization to the present time.”
When his revised speech appeared in Nancy Cunard’s anthology Negro, in 1934, Schomburg added that “it matters not whether [black history] comes from the cloisters of the university or from the rank and file of the fields,” thereby acknowledging the contributions that he and other “lay” researchers and historians had made to the dissemination of historical knowledge. Another area of interest to Schomburg was his study of the role that blacks had played in the development of Spanish history.
Schomburg frequently presented his work at meetings of the American Negro Academy, and one of his areas of research led to a paper called “Fragmentary Tribute to Spanish Negro Painters of the School of Seville,” which he delivered to the academy in December of 1923, in Washington, DC. Schomburg’s continued interest in black Spanish painters motivated many of the articles he wrote for Crisis. He had been particularly moved by “The Calling of Matthew,” a painting by Juan de Pareja, who had been a slave of the famous Spanish artist Diego Velazquez. A letter that Schomburg wrote to his friend John Wesley Cromwell before leaving for Spain stated: “I depart now on a mission of love to recapture my lost heritage.” In 1926, Schomburg visited Europe, fulfilling one of his life-long dreams.
During his two months abroad, Schomburg discovered the Negro Brotherhood of Seville, part of the “lost black Hispanic heritage,” according to Sinnette, that Schomburg had hoped to find. In a isolated part of the city lived the remaining descendants of Africans who had been brought to Spain in the 1500s. Accounts of his visit and photographs appear in the June of 1927 and March of 1928 issues of Opportunity and in Schomburg’s photo album at the Schomburg Center.
While in Europe, Schomburg also conducted research on the role Spain played in the African diaspora at museums and archives in Seville, Madrid, and Zaragoza, but he never accomplished his life-long ambition of writing a book about the role and contributions of blacks to the development of Spanish culture. Schomburg returned from Spain with 185 books and artifacts that he had acquired for the New York Public Library (NYPL). Meanwhile, Schomburg’s own private collection included more than 500 prints and etchings by black artists. Black art historians Cedric Dover and James Porter have both commented on the uniqueness of Schomburg’s historical interest in black graphic artists and his support of twentieth-century black artists.
The 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library opened in Harlem in January of 1905, in what was at that time a predominantly Jewish community. Phyllis Dain explained that the branch libraries were opened to “participate in neighborhood life by going beyond the mere provision of books and information in an attractive setting” and that branch librarians “viewed themselves as active agents in the acculturation of… immigrants.”
By 1920, millions of blacks from the United States, the Caribbean, and Africa had moved into Harlem, New York, creating an artistic and intellectual atmosphere known as the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem was beginning to be called the “black capital” of the United States. Because of increasing demand for and use of books and materials on black culture, a special reference collection was organized at the 135th Street branch with Schomburg as one of the central planners, and in May of 1925, the Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints was officially opened. The division sponsored annual art exhibits of black artists, lectures on black history, and displays of letters, manuscripts, books, and other artifacts of black history. Librarian Ernestine Rose also began hiring the first black librarians for the NYPL.
A May of 1925 article in Opportunity described the purpose of the newly opened division: “To preserve the historical records of the race; to arouse the race consciousness and race pride; to inspire art students [and] to give information to everyone about the Negro.” During this time of expansion and development, Arthur Schomburg served as a valuable resource for the library, volunteering his time, expertise, and valuable materials. Central to growing interest in and scholarship on black history during the twenties was Schomburg’s library, which he generously opened to the young black writers of the Renaissance. In 1926, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, the New York public Library purchased Schomburg’s collection for $10,000.
Schomburg was appointed as one of the members of the Advisory Committee responsible for overseeing the collection, which was officially named “The Arthur A. Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art.” In recognition of his contribution to education, Schomburg was awarded one of the first coveted Harmon foundation awards in January of 1927.
Schomburg’s collection was impressive. Howard Dodson reported that it contained “over five thousand books, three thousand manuscripts, two thousand etchings and portraits, and several thousand pamphlets.” These artifacts included signed manuscripts of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry, several of Benjamin Banneker’s almanacs, letters of Toussaint L’Ouverture, various editions of the narrative of Gustavus Vassa, memorabilia from the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, and a sixteenth-century volume of poetry by Juan Latino, an African who was poetry chair at the University of Granada. In addition to extremely valuable artifacts of such African Americans as Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Jupiter Hammon, Martin Delaney, and Frederick Douglass, Schomburg collected items relevant to blacks and black history in Europe, Russia, the Caribbean, Africa, and South America.
When Schomburg retired from Bankers Trust in January of 1930, his friend Charles Spurgeon Johnson, then chair of social sciences at Fisk University, facilitated Schomburg’s appointment as curator of the Negro Collection at Fisk. During his tenure at Fisk, Schomburg acquired valuable materials for the Negro Collection; preserved existing important historical memorabilia, including the valuable Lincoln Bible; designed and organized the Negro Collection Reading Room; and cataloged materials. He also served the larger university community by initiating forums and seminars conducted by leading black academics, advising students and faculty’s reading of black history, and serving as advisor to Fisk’s debating team, which had in an unorthodox gesture, invited white teams such as New York and Northwestern universities to debate.
Nevertheless, Schomburg was unsuccessful in his grant-writing and other attempts to receive funding for the library from external sources. By 1931, no money was available to continue his salary. At the same time, however, the Carnegie Corporation and the Rosenwald Fund granted the NYPL’s request for black adult education program funding, and Schomburg was asked to return to the 135th Street branch to become curator of his own collection and to advise research workers.
In January of 1932, Schomburg returned home to Harlem, where he spent the remaining six years of his life involving himself in numerous community projects and activities, including the adult education program at the 135th Street branch. He also continued acquiring materials and artifacts for the Schomburg Collection, including the famous marble bust of Othello by Pietro Calvi, a Milanese sculptor. When Arthur Schomburg died in June of 1938, Opportunity magazine wrote the following tribute: “To his people and to his generation he gave all of his energy, his vision, and the strength of his spirit, and more than this no man can give.” The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture stands as an enduring testament of Schomburg’s energy, vision, and spirit.
Contributor of essays to numerous periodicals, including Crisis, Opportunity, Messenger, Negro World, Negro Digest, and New Century. Schomburg’s writings have also been collected in the Arthur A. Schomburg Papers in the Rare Books, Manuscripts and Archives Section of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York City, and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University, Washington, DC.
Anderson, Jervis, This Was Harlem: A Cultural Portrait, 1900-1950, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1982.
Bontemps, Arna, ed., Harlem Renaissance Remembered, Dodd, Mead, 1972.
Cannon, Carl L., American Book Collectors and Collecting From Colonial Times to the Present, H. W. Wilson Co., 1941.
Cunard, Nancy, compiler, Negro Anthology, Wishart & Co., 1934.
Dain, Phyllis, The New York Public Library: A History of Its Founding and Early Years, The New York Public Library, 1972.
Dodson, Howard, “The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 76, Gale, 1988.
Dover, Cedric, American Negro Art, Studio, 1960.
Gubert, Betty Kaplan, editor, Early Black Bibliographies, 1863-1918, Garland, 1982.
Holden, John Allan, editor, Private Book Collectors in the United States and Canada with Mention of Their Hobbies, revised edition, Bowker, 1925.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin, Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1971.
Huggins, Nathan Irvin, editor, Voices From the Harlem Renaissance, Oxford University Press, 1976.
Josey, E. J., editor, The Black Librarian in America, Scarecrow Press, 1970.
Locke, Alain, editor, The New Negro, Albert and Charles Boni, 1925; reprinted, Atheneum, 1970.
McKay, Claude, Harlem: Negro Metropolis, Dutton, 1940.
Porter, James, Modern Negro Art, Dryden Press, 1943.
Rose, Ernestine, The Public Library in American Life, Columbia University Press, 1954.
Sanchez Korrol, Virginia E., From Colonia to Community: The History of the Puerto Rican in New York City, 1917-1948, Greenwood Press, 1983.
Sinnette, Elinor Des Verney, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg: Black Bibliophile & Collector, The New York Public Library & Wayne State University Press, 1989.
Smith, Jessie Carney, Black Academic Libraries and Research Collections: An Historical Survey, Greenwood Press, 1977.
Thorpe, Earl E., Black Historians: A Critique, William Morrow, 1971.
African Forum, spring 1966, pp. 11-20.
Afro-American Studies, June 1971, pp. 1-13.
Black World, November 1970, pp. 5-9.
Crisis, March 1922, p. 220; June 1934, pp. 164-65; July 1938, p. 221; October 1966, p. 421.
Daedalus, summer 1971, pp. 678-719.
Freedomways, summer 1963, pp. 312-14, pp. 430-35; no. 1, 1983, pp. 29-36.
Journal of Library History, April 1975, pp. 169-76.
Journal of Negro Education, October 1935, pp. 482-89; April 1936, pp. 232-44; October 1936, pp. 555-76; January 1938, pp. 12-18.
Journal of Negro History, April 1927, pp. 103-09; January 1928, pp. 7-21; July 1938, p. 403; October 1938, p. 521; January 1952, pp. 11-25.
Library Journal, March 15, 1921, pp. 255-58; November 1, 1927, pp. 1012-14; February 15, 1930, pp. 150-54.
Library Quarterly, July 1944, pp. 187-206.
Midwest Journal, fall 1955, pp. 222-34.
Negro Digest, September 1962, pp. 63-5.
Negro History Bulletin, April 1945, p. 148; June-July 1974, pp. 255-56.
Opportunity, July 1923, pp. 206; August 1924, pp. 244-46; May 1925, p. 159; January 1927, pp. 20-2; March 1932, pp. 76-9; July 1938, p. 197.
Southern Workman, November 1934, pp. 327-34.
Wilson Library Bulletin, January 1931, pp. 310-15; January 1936, p. 311; September 1965, pp. 42-7.
—Mary Katherine Wainwright
January 24, 1874
June 10, 1938
Bibliophile Arthur Alfonso Schomburg was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to a German merchant and an unmarried black laundress who was a native of Saint Thomas, Virgin Islands. He received some formal education but was largely self-taught. He emigrated to the United States in 1891, moving to New York City. Schomburg worked in a law office, was active in the "Porto [sic] Rican Revolutionary Party," and began his lifelong quest to amass a collection of African-American books and other materials in order to demonstrate the existence and significance of black history. In 1906 he went to work at Bankers Trust Company, where he eventually became head of the mail room, staying with the company for twenty-three years.
With his broad knowledge and passion for African-American history, Schomburg became a leading spirit in the Harlem Renaissance and an inspiration to a generation of historians. He was an active Prince Hall Mason, he cofounded with John Edward Bruce in 1911 the Negro Society for Historical Research, and in 1922 he became president of the soon-to-be moribund American Negro Academy. Schomburg wrote numerous pamphlets and bibliographical studies. His best-known essay is "The Negro Digs Up His Past" in Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925), a call to the important task of careful scholarly research into African and African-American history.
Arthur A. Schomburg
"We need the historian and philosopher to give us with trenchant pen, the story of our forefathers, and let our soul and body, with phosphorescent light, brighten the chasm that separates us. We should cling to them just as blood is thicker than water."
racial integrity: a plea for the estab lishment of a chair of negro history in our schools, colleges, etc. published in 1913 in nancy cunard's work, negro.
In 1925 the New York Public Library established a special Negro Division at the 135th Street Branch. The next year the Carnegie Corporation purchased for $10,000 Schomburg's vast and unequalled collection of books, manuscripts, and art works and donated it to the library. Schomburg, who was a librarian at Fisk University from 1930 to 1932, became curator of his own collection with another Carnegie grant, which he received in 1932. His
collection forms the core of the present Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the largest collection of materials by and about people of African descent.
An Arthur Schomburg Award for Excellence in African Studies is awarded each year.
Knight, Robert. "Arthur 'Afroborinqueno' Schomburg." Available from Civil Rights Journal, <http://www.escape.com/~rknight/schombrg.html>.
Sinnette, Elinor Des Verney. Arthur Alfonso Schomburg: Black Bibliophile and Collector. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989.
richard newman (1996)