Findings in the Archives: Sharing Research Interests with Those You Are Researching

As I slowly, but surely work my way through my findings from a recent archival research trip, I came across the following piece of paper.

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Photo taken from the Geraldine Wilson Papers located at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

It states the following:

   Arthur Schomburg
Puerto Rican of African Descent
Inspired by bad teaching
Spent life gathering info to refute (?) change
San Jan Hill (Lincoln Center)
135th and Lenox

As I close off the remainder of this semester, I recently submitted a paper on the origins of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture focusing on the individual for who the center is named after–Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Ironically, both Geraldine and I were interested in the same research topic. You see, great minds do think alike! In this post, I will share portions of my paper entitled The Chronicles of Schomburg: The Man, the Library, and the Archives. 

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Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938)

The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future. Though it is orthodox to think of America as the one country where it is unnecessary to have a past, what is a luxury for the nation as a whole becomes a prime social necessity for the Negro.

“The Negro Digs Up His Past”, Arthuro A. Schomburg

           Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born in San Jan, Puerto Rico on January 24, 1874.[1] His father, Carlos Federico Schomburg, was a German-born merchant and his mother, Maria Josepha, was a black midwife from the Virgin Islands.[2] Young Arturo was primarily raised by his mother’s family in Puerto Rico.[3] He rarely makes any reference to his early years in Puerto Rico or the time he spent in his mother’s home country in the West Indies making much of his early life unknown.[4] What scholars do know is an event from his childhood that would later inspired Schomburg’s interest in uncovering and preserving the history of the African Diaspora. Schomburg began his education in San Juan, Puerto Rico. It was in his fifth grade class where Arturo asked his schoolteacher about the contributions of Africans and their descendants to the Americas’ history.[5] His teacher rudely remarked that blacks have no history, heroes, or any notable accomplishments.[6]  Being of African descent, this disregard was said to provoke Schomburg’s thirst for the knowledge about his people forming the foundation of this passion in studying and collecting black history.[7] Despite his passion, it would take years for Schomburg to begin his private collection.

In 1891, he arrived in New York City at the age of seventeen.[8] Settling into a community of exiled Puerto Rican and Cuban cigar workers and other working-class refugees, he would immerse himself in the rise of a radical political culture.[9] In his early twenties, he co-founded a revolutionary nationalist club called “Las Dos Antillas” dedicated to the decolonization of Puerto Rico and Cuba.[10] Throughout this time, Schomburg studied English at a local high school and provided himself a suitable income by teaching Spanish to American students. Although he made strong connections with Cubans and Puerto Rican activist, these links with the islands of his youth faded as his commitment to racial internationalism and education grew, yet this was not his original intentions.[11] Schomburg’s career goal rest in the profession of law, which he studied for five years in New York. Unsatisfied with American law, he worked for years as a clerk within the Banker’s Trust Company of New York.[12] Neither of these professions inspired Schomburg. Despite his ever-changing career objectives, one objective remain unchanged—to disprove the remarks of his teacher.[13] A move toward this objective may be seen in who he choice to identify himself with black Americans. Overtime, he voluntarily places himself in the middle-class Negro social life and although he self-identified himself as being culturally Puerto Rican, racially he identified as black.[14] His connection with black Americans grew tremendously following his marriage to a young black woman from Virginia and the birth of their three sons.[15]Still, he kept a name for himself as an advocate and ally of the Puerto Rican and Cuban movements. Black journalists wrongly described him as a “well educated cultured Cuban gentleman…and a recognized leader in Cuban-Spanish circles in New York City.”[16] Regardless of his racial affiliation, Schomburg certainly made a greater name for himself amongst the black community.

During this time, Schomburg’s passion for accumulating literature, documents, and artifacts rose. Through the assistance of well-known journalist, John E. Bruce, Schomburg joined the Prince Hall Masons as an international correspondent. The Prince Hall Masons of Harlem is a fraternal social institution that played an important role in black communities in North America, the Caribbean, and Africa.  In early history, they played a vital role in the political and reform activities of free black communities and following the Civil War concerned themselves with the larger social, economic, and political issues confronting blacks.[17] From this connection, Schomburg was able to seek the help of friends who travelled internationally, including Alain Locke and James Weldon Johnson, in acquiring materials from Europe and Latin America.[18] These friendships and connections built a transnational, multilingual private archive of the African diaspora. It is important to note that Schomburg never received any formal education in history or preserving artifacts; he was a self-taught historian, bibliophile, and collector who become a scholar in locating, collecting, and maintaining an archive.[19]

In 1911, Schomburg co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research which included black nationalists, historians, and leaders. Their motto—“Resurgam—Race is the Key to History.”[20] Friends described Schomburg as an outstanding example of an “intelligent, thrifty, proud, energetic…searcher for truths pertaining to race history.”[21] With members across the world, this organization provoked a need and a longing for the study of black history. Churches, black schools, and civic groups all requested documentation from this organization.[22] As a result of this demand and the lack of outside resources, Schomburg allowed his collection to be completely accessible to his members and at one point had to threaten to close off his archive due to stolen and unreturned material.[23] Schomburg’s work also extended beyond his own society. In 1915, he assisted historian Carter Woodson, the Father of Black History, in founding the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and served as an editor of its Journal of Negro History.[24] Years later, Schomburg was admitted into the American Negro Academy, an organization comprised of black intellectuals to promote scholarship of black people and to build an archive devoted to black history.[25] Years later, he served as the organization’s president of the American Negro Academy, a position once held by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois.[26]

By this time, Schomburg had in his possession an overwhelming number of books, pamphlets, autographed letters, photographs, and rare artifacts. This included signed copies of poems by Phillis Wheatley, the first published black female poet, volumes of work by Paul Cuffee, early Pan-Africanist leader in Sierra Leone, and collections of works by early black historians.[27] His collection was acquired through rare item sales, donations, and book swaps. Schomburg spent hours in secondhand book stores going through their old boxed items. He once purchased a set of ten different editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin![28] By 1925, he had in his collection about 5,000 books, 3,000 pamphlets and manuscripts, and countless other artifacts all related to black history in America and abroad.[29] Prominent Harlem intellectuals and scholars took note of this abundant collection and persuaded the Carnegie Foundation to purchase Schomburg’s collection for the New York Public Library.[30] Within the same year this foundation alongside the New York Public Library (NYPL) purchased Schomburg’s personal collection for ten thousand dollars.[31] His collection was set to be put on display the 135th Street branch of the NYPL. This act was deemed as one of the two significant events of the Harlem Renaissance.[32]

Hope you enjoy his story and I encourage you all to visit the Schomburg Center if you are ever in Harlem.

Until the next post,

Christina

[1] Encyclopedia of Latino Literature, ed. Nicolás Kanellos (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008), s.v. “Schomburg, Arturo”. 1041
[2] Ibid.
[3] Encyclopedia of African-American Writing, ed. Shari Dorantes Hatch, (Amenia, NY: Grey House Publishing), s.v. “Schomburg, Arturo Alfonso”, 996.
[4] Jossianna Arroyo. “Technologies: Transculturations of Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Arturo A. Schomburg’s Masonic Writings.” Centro Journal 17. No. 1:5-19 (Spring 2005). Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (Accessed November 11, 2014).
[5] Shelia S. Walker, African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas, (Lanham, MD: Rowan and Littlefield Publishers, 2001), 140.
[6] W.A.T.E.R. 17, “Arthur Schomburg: The Afro-Borinqueño Autodidact”, New York Amsterdam News, January 28, 2010.
[7] Encyclopedia of Latino Literature, 1041.
[8] Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, “The Migrations of Arturo Schomburg: On Being Antillano,Negro, and Puerto Rican in New York 1891-1938”, Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 21, No. (Fall, 2001): 9.
[9]  Ibid.
[10] Ibid
[11] Ibid
[12] Donald Franklin Joyce, “Arthur Alonzo Schomburg: A Pioneering Black Bibliophile”, The Journal of Library History (1947-1987), Vol. 10, No. 2 (April, 1975): 169.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Hoffnung-Garskof, 7
[15] Ibid, 9.
[16] Ibid, 10.
[17] Martin Anthony Summers, Manliness and Its Discontents: The Black Middle Class and the Transformation of Masculinity, 1900-1930, (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 20-21.
[18] Holton, 223.
[19] Elinor Des Verney Sinnette, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, Black Bibliophile & Collector: A Biography (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1989), 41.
[20] Ibid, 42
[21] Ibid, 43
[22] Ibid
[23] Ibid, 44.
[24] Holton, 223
[25] Ibid, 224.
[26] Joyce, 170.
[27] Sinnette, 44.
[28] Ibid, 88.
[29] Joyce, 170
[30] Ibid.
[31] W.A.T.E.R. 17, p 2
[32] Dodson, 74

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4 responses to “Findings in the Archives: Sharing Research Interests with Those You Are Researching

  1. Pingback: What Became His Wife’s War: The Battle for Civil War Pension | Diary of a Historian·

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