Arturo Alfonso Schomburg
January 24, 1874 – June 10, 1938
Nationality: Puerto Rican
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico to a Black midwife from St. Croix and the Puerto Rican-born son of a German immigrant. Attending school with White classmates, Schomburg was exposed to stories of the great feats and accomplishments of White people throughout history. In the fifth grade, Schomburg’s teacher told him that Black people had no history. The comment had a tremendous impact on Schomburg, sparking his interest in Black history.
Schomburg was determined to learn more about Black people’s past to disprove the teacher’s statement and show his classmates that the history of Black people also boasted major accomplishments. He came to take great pride in the Haitian Revolution and regarded Toussaint Louverture as one of his childhood heroes.
After enrolling at Instituto Popular to study commercial printing, Schomburg became a student at St. Thomas College where he enrolled in a Negro Literature program. Seeking a better life, Schomburg sensed that expanding his opportunities would require moving beyond the Caribbean. Schomburg migrated to New York City in April 1891 and worked various jobs while taking night classes at Manhattan Central High.
At the time Cuba and Puerto Rico were both Spanish colonies pushing for their independence. Schomburg became involved by co-founding Las Dos Antilles, a political club that supported the independence movement. When the Spanish-American War ended in 1898 and Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States, the independence movement and club fell apart.
Schomburg was married a total of three times with his first two marriages ending as a result of his wives’ premature deaths. The three marriages produced a total of eight children. On the social front, Schomburg joined Prince Hall Lodge and moved up the local and state ranks during the 1910s. He began recording the organization’s history and collecting items that showed people of African descent had just as much history as anyone else.
Carter G. Woodson and other Black intellectuals of the time had begun to promote Black history and encouraged others to study the subject. In response, Schomburg collaborated with John Howard Bruce on the creation of the Negro Society for Historical Research. The organization was established to provide support for scholars across the Black diaspora as they worked on research projects.
As the Harlem Renaissance began to take shape, Schomburg befriended several figures such as Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois who loomed large during the era. The environment combined with Schomburg’s passionate interest in Black history played a key role in his desire to make information about Black people through the ages available for the general public. He began a collection of books, photos, documents, and other artifacts related to Black culture and history from across the diaspora.
To amass his collection, Schomburg searched rare book stores, reached out to book dealers, and wrote countless inquiry letters. He also had friends search furniture stores in Black neighborhoods in other parts of the country. Inspired and hoping to inform others about these objects, Schomburg penned numerous articles and essays with “The Negro Digs Up His Past” becoming the most popular. That piece, in particular, encouraged Black people to take a greater interest in their history and influenced many burgeoning Black history scholars such as Dr. John Henrik Clarke.
By 1926, Schomburg’s collection had grown to more than 10,000 artifacts which the New York Public Library purchased for $10,000. The collection was added to the Division of Negro History’s branch which was housed at the library system’s 135th Street branch and Schomburg became the curator. He continued to expand the collection by using proceeds from the sale to travel and procure more artifacts.
From 1906 to 1929 Schomburg held a day job at Bankers Trust Company where he put his trilingual skills (English, French, and Spanish) to use in the Caribbean and Latin American Mail Section. He left that position for a job at Fisk University where he served as curator of a collection of his papers. His collection at Fisk began with about 100 items but grew to 4,600 by the end of Schomburg’s time at the school. As part of The Negro Collection at Fisk’s library, Schomburg’s papers helped establish the school as a premier facility for Black research and studies.
In 1938, Schomburg became ill and was hospitalized after complications from dental surgery. He died at Madison Park Hospital on June 10, 1938, and was laid to rest in Brooklyn, New York’s Cypress Hills Cemetery. Two years after his death, the collection was renamed the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature, History, and Prints. In 1972, the 135th Street Branch was designated as one of the New York Public Library system’s specialty research libraries and renamed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. September 15, 2021. https://www.biography.com/scholar/arturo-alfonso-schomburg.
- Diouf, Sylviane Anna. 2007. “Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938).” Blackpast.org. January 18, 2007. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/schomburg-arturo-alfonso-1874-1938/.
- Lewis, Femi. 2020. “How Did Arturo Schomburg Preserve African-American History?” ThoughtCo. Dotdash. December 15, 2020. https://www.thoughtco.com/arturo-alfonso-schomburg-biography-45207.
- Norat, Herbert. 2020. “Arturo A. Schomburg: His Life and Legacy.” The New York Public Library. October 5, 2020. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2020/10/05/arturo-schomburg-his-life-and-legacy.
- “Schomburg, Arturo Alfonso (1874–1938).” n.d. Encyclopedia.com. Encyclopedia.com. Accessed February 2, 2022. https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/schomburg-arturo-alfonso-1874-1938.
- Carter G. Woodson
- The Harlem Renaissance
- John Henrik Clarke (Coming On 02/22)
- Stamped from the Beginning [Book Review] (Coming On 02/25)
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