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Viewpoints: Eye on History: Schomburg collected books, photos to chronicle black achievements

By Eva M. Doyle

Arthur A. Schomburg was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1874, the son of a free black midwife from St. Croix. His father was of German heritage. Historian Joel Augustus Rogers called Schomburg the “Sherlock Holmes of Black History.”

Schomburg dedicated his life to collecting thousands of books, old manuscripts, pictures and valuable letters that described black life and history. He produced lists of black artists and poets. He wrote numerous articles for magazines and newspapers and shared his knowledge with the world.

Schomburg made an impression as a researcher and a man who would not give up his search for the history of black men and women. He was determined to prove his fifth-grade teacher wrong when she told him that “black people had no history, no heroes, no great moments.”

Schomburg is often referred to as the Afro-Puerto Rican scholar. He was proud of his heritage and once stated, “I am a Puerto Rican of African descent.”

Schomburg was determined to connect African people to the history of the world. He was instrumental in organizing the Negro Society for Historical Research. In 1922, he was elected president of the American Negro Academy. He spent every spare moment tracing clues and recording details of black history.

Schomburg discovered a valuable manuscript written by Lemuel Haynes, a black minister of a large white New England church before the emancipation of the slaves. Many of the books he discovered were bound in expensive leather and worth a great deal of money. Schomburg had in his possession rare books and African artifacts. He was able to locate the most difficult books and information about the history of blacks in the world. By 1925, he had collected more than 5,000 books and other written material about the history of blacks. He was a researcher who sought the truth.

Schomburg traveled widely and continued to make discoveries about black history wherever he went. He visited Europe and continued his research. In Spain, he found out that two of the most well-known Spanish artists – Juan de Pareja and Sebastian Gomez – were black. On his visits to France, Germany and England, Schomburg made similar discoveries of distinguished people of color who made tremendous contributions to these countries.

Schomburg collected numerous books on anthropology, folklore, poetry, sociology and the customs of African people around the world. He joined the ranks of the Masons and became a strong voice against the racist view of white Masons that black Masons were not legitimate.

Schomburg was also instrumental in translating the Masonic rituals from Spanish to English for new members.

As a member of the El Sol de Cuba Lodge No. 18, founded by Cubans and Puerto Ricans, he rose quickly and held high positions. Due to his ability to speak Spanish, he was able to converse with Masons in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and in Central and South America.

Schomburg’s work inspired many writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. He also gave financial assistance to aspiring writers. His involvement in the cultural life of Harlem led to friendships with such talented writers as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay. Schomburg also admired the work of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, who believed that blacks should be independent and establish their own businesses and institutions. Schomburg contributed articles to Garvey’s Negro World Newspaper and gave him historical items from his vast collection on black history.

Today the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is part of the New York City Public Library. Schomburg became the first curator of this huge collection of historical documents. It is located at 515 Malcolm X Blvd. in Harlem. It is now a National Historic Landmark.

Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for the Criterion newspaper for 38 years.

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