Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

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Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (January 24, 1874 – June 10, 1938), was a historian, writer, collector, and activist for equal rights. Schomburg was a Puerto Rican of African and German descent. He moved to the United States in 1891, where he researched and raised awareness of the contributions that Afro-Latin Americans and African Americans have made to society. He was an important intellectual figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Over the years, he collected literature, art, slave narratives, and other materials of African history, which were purchased to become the basis of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, named in his honor, at the New York Public Library (NYPL) branch in Harlem.


  • Imagine a boy living in the city of his birth and not knowing who was the most noted native painter! It is true the fact was recorded on a marble tablet duly inscribed and placed on the wall of a building where it could easily be read. However, the inhabitants of San Juan knew but little of the man thus honored. The white Spaniards who knew, spoke not of the man's antecedents. A conspiracy of silence had been handed down through many decades and like a veil covered the canvases of this talented Puerto Rican. Today we understand the silence and know the meaning of it all.
    • "José Campeche 1752-1809" quoted in Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg by Vanessa K Valdés (2018)
  • The works of José Julián Acosta and Salvador Brau have been my first inspiration to a further and intense study of the Negro in America.
    • letter to Richard Pattee, dated February 3, 1937
  • José Martí always stated that the republic would have been impossible without the brawn and muscle of all races.
    • "General Antonio Maceo" quoted in Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg by Vanessa K Valdés (2018)
  • What of it if the darker races are getting consciousness, isn't the world large enough for the people of all bloods to dwell therein?
    • "Masonic Truths: A Letter and a Document" quoted in Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg by Vanessa K Valdés (2018)
  • There is a sad and tragic chapter in the history of Cuba under Spanish rule, that seems to circle with pathetic recollections the dreadful wrongs done to innocent men....A calm generally precedes these conditions and I will attempt to carry you through the events as they were ushered into existence by the break of day.
    • "Plácido: an Epoch in Cuba's Struggle for Liberty" quoted in Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg by Vanessa K Valdés (2018)
  • Many Cuban Negroes curse the dawn of the Republic. Negroes were welcomed in the time of oppression, in the time of hardship, during the days of revolution, but in the days of peace and of white immigration they are deprived of positions, ostracized and made political outcasts. The Negro has done much for Cuba; Cuba has done nothing for the Negro.
    • "General Evaristo Estenoz" quoted in Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg by Vanessa K Valdés (2018)
  • We have been instructed to look at the Negro as "idle, worthless, indolent and disloyal," but a careful examination of the West Indies and South America does not show this to be true. Many instances of advancement by hard industry can be noted in any of the many spots of the New World. There is not a single field of industrial activity in which the descendants of the African have not contributed their mite toward an improvement of conditions which the gold seekers and pleasure hunters were wont to overlook.
    • "The Economic Contribution by the Negro to America" quoted in Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg by Vanessa K Valdés (2018)
  • The African brought to America among his patrimony musical instruments...The African fetiches with their religious dancing has had its counterpart in the Voodoo ceremonies in Haiti and the Nanigoz societies of Cuba, known to exist in those islands as late as 1890. It is quite true that the Church, not knowing the true interpretation of music and dancing carried on by the African has dubbed it with the term savagery.
    • "West Indian Composers and Musicians" quoted in Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg by Vanessa K Valdés (2018)

The Negro Digs Up His Past (1925)[edit]

  • 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. For him, a group tradition must supply compensation for persecution, and pride of race the antidote for prejudice. History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generations must repair and offset. So among the rising democratic millions we find the Negro thinking more collectively, more retrospectively than the rest, and apt out of the very pressure of the present to become the most enthusiastic antiquarian of them all.
  • Vindicating evidences of individual achievement have as a matter of fact been gathered and treasured for over a century: Abbé Gregoire's liberal-minded book on Negro notables in 1808 was the pioneer effort
  • The Negro has been throughout the centuries of controversy an active collaborator, and often a pioneer, in the struggle for his own freedom and advancement.
  • By virtue of their being regarded as something "exceptional," even by friends and well-wishers, Negroes of attainment and genius have been unfairly disassociated from the group and group credit lost accordingly.
  • With such crucial truths to document and establish, an ounce of fact is worth a pound of controversy
  • Here among the rarities of early Negro Americana was Jupiter Hammon's Address to the Negroes of the State of New York, edition of 1787, with the first American Negro poet's famous "If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves." Here was Phyllis Wheatley's Mss. poem of 1767 addressed to the students of Harvard, her spirited encomiums upon George Washington and the Revolutionary Cause, and John Marrant's St. John's Day eulogy to the "Brothers of African Lodge No. 459" delivered at Boston in 1789. Here too were Lemuel Haynes' Vermont commentaries on the American Revolution and his learned sermons to his white congregation in Rutland, Vermont, and the sermons of the year 1808 by the Rev. Absalom Jones of St. Thomas Church, Philadelphia, and Peter Williams of St. Philip's, New York, pioneer Episcopal rectors who spoke out in daring and influential ways on the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Such things and many others are more than mere items of curiosity: they educate any receptive mind.
  • Reinforcing these were still rarer items of Africana and foreign Negro interest, the volumes of Juan Latino,7 the best Latinist of Spain in the reign of Philip V, incumbent of the chair of Poetry at the University of Granada, and author of Poems printed there in 1573 and a book on the Escorials published 1576; the Latin and Dutch treatises of Jacobus Eliza Capitein, a native of West Coast Africa and graduate of the University of Leyden, Gustavus Vassa's celebrated autobiography that supplied so much of the evidence in 1796 for Granville Sharpe's attack on slavery in the British colonies, Julien Raymond's Paris exposé of the disabilities of the free people of color in the then (1791) French colony of Hayti, and Baron de Vastey's Cry of the Fatherland, the famous polemic by the secretary of Christophe that precipitated the Haytian struggle for independence. The cumulative effect of such evidences of scholarship and moral prowess is too weighty to be dismissed as exceptional.
  • Already the Negro sees himself against a reclaimed background, in a perspective that will give pride and self-respect ample scope, and make history yield for him the same values that the treasured past of any people affords.
  • But weightier surely than any evidence of individual talent and scholarship could ever be, is the evidence of important collaboration and significant pioneer initiative in social service and reform, in the efforts toward race emancipation, colonization and race betterment. From neglected and rust-spotted pages comes testimony to the black men and women who stood shoulder to shoulder in courage and zeal, and often on a parity of intelligence and talent, with their notable white benefactors. There was the already cited work of Vassa that aided so materially the efforts of Granville Sharpe, the record of Paul Cuffee,' the Negro colonization pioneer, associated so importantly with the establishment of Sierra Leone as a British colony for the occupancy of free people of color in West Africa; the dramatic and history-making exposé of John Baptist Phillips,2 African graduate of Edinburgh, who compelled through Lord Bathhurst in 1824 the enforcement of the articles of capitulation guaranteeing freedom to the blacks of Trinidad. There is the record of the pioneer colonization project of Rev. Daniel Coker in conducting a voyage of ninety expatriates to West Africa in 1820, of the missionary efforts of Samuel Crowther in Sierra Leone, first Anglican bishop of his diocese, and that of the work of John Russwurm, a leader in the work and foundation of the American Colonization Society.
  • When we consider the facts, certain chapters of American history will have to be reopened. Just as black men were influential factors in the campaign against the slave trade, so they were among the earliest instigators of the abolition movement. Indeed there was a dangerous calm between the agitation for the suppression of the slave trade and the beginning of the campaign for emancipation. During that interval colored men were very influential in arousing the attention of public men who in turn aroused the conscience of the country. Continuously between 1808 and 1845, men like Prince Saunders, Peter Williams, Absalom Jones, Nathaniel Paul, and Bishops Varick and Richard Allen,³ the founders of the two wings of African Methodism, spoke out with force and initiative, and men like Denmark Vesey (1822), David Walker (1828) and Nat Turner (1831) advocated and organized schemes for direct action. This culminated in the generally ignored but important conventions of Free People of Color in New York, Philadelphia and other centers, whose platforms and efforts are to the Negro of as great significance as the nationally cherished memories of Faneuil and Independence Halls.' Then with Abolition comes the better documented and more recognized collaboration of Samuel R. Ward, William Wells Brown, Henry Highland Garnett, Martin Delany, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth,and Frederick Douglass with their great colleagues, Tappan, Phillips, Sumner, Mott, Stowe and Garrison.
  • But even this latter groups who came within the limelight of national and international notice, and thus into open comparison with the best minds of their generation, the public too often regards as a group of inspired illiterates, eloquent echoes of their Abolitionist sponsors. For a true estimate of their ability and scholarship, however, one must go with the antiquarian to the files of the Anglo-African Magazine, where page by page comparisons be made. Their writings show Douglass, McCune Smith, Wells Brown, Delany, Wilmot Blyden and Alexander Crummell to have been as scholarly and versatile as any of the noted publicists with whom they were associated. All of them labored internationally in the cause of their fellows; to Scotland, England, France, Germany and Africa, they carried their brilliant offensive of debate and propaganda, and with this came instance upon instance of signal foreign recognition, from academic, scientific, public and official sources.
  • After this great era of public interest and discussion, it was Alexander Crummell, who, with the reaction already setting in, first organized Negro brains defensively through the founding of the American Negro Academy in 1897 at Washington. A New York boy whose zeal for education had suffered a rude shock when refused admission to the Episcopal Seminary by Bishop Onderdonk, he had been befriended by John Jay and sent to Cambridge University, England, for his education and ordination. On his return, he was beset with the idea of promoting race scholarship, and the Academy was the final result. It has continued ever since to be one of the bulwarks of our intellectual life, though unfortunately its members have had to spend too much of their energy and effort answering detractors and disproving popular fallacies. Only gradually have the men of this group been able to work toward pure scholarship.
  • Almost keeping pace with the work of scholarship has been the effort to popularize the results, and to place before Negro youth in the schools the true story of race vicissitude, struggle and accomplishment. So that quite largely now the ambition of Negro youth can be nourished on its own milk.
  • The blatant Caucasian racialist with his theories and assumptions of race superiority and dominance has in turn bred his Ethiopian counterpart-the rash and rabid amateur who has glibly tried to prove half of the world's geniuses to have been Negroes and to trace the pedigree of nineteenth century Americans from the Queen of Sheba. But fortunately to-day there is on both sides of a really common cause less of the sand of controversy and more of the dust of digging.
  • The bigotry of civilization which is the taproot of intellectual prejudice begins far back and must be corrected at its source. Fundamentally it has come about from that depreciation of Africa which has sprung up from ignorance of her true rôle and position in human history and the early development of culture. The Negro has been a man without a history because he has been considered a man without a worthy culture.

Racial integrity : a plea for the establishment of a chair of Negro history in our schools and colleges (1913)[edit]

  • The modern school with its many books, but without systematic lectures, turns out many graduates who are lacking in retentiveness and no sooner than the sound of the words has left their teachers' lips, the subject been forgotten; and if they are called upon to explain the theme, it is reduced to an incomprehensible mass of meaningless words.
  • We have chairs of almost everything, and believe we lack nothing, but we sadly need a chair of Negro history. The white institutions have their chair of history; it is the history of their people, and whenever the Negro is mentioned in the text-books it dwindles down to a footnote. The white scholar's mind and heart are fired because in the temple of learning he is told how on March 5, 1770, the Americans were able to beat the English; but to find Crispus Attucks it is necessary to go deep into special books. In the orations delivered at Bunker's Hill, Daniel Webster never mentioned the Negroes having done anything, and is silent about Peter Salem. In the account of the battle of Long Island City and around New York under Major-General Nathaniel Greene, no mention is made of the eight hundred Negro soldiers who imperiled their lives in the Revolutionary War. Cases can be shown right and left of such palpable omissions.
  • Where is our historian to give us our side view and our chair of Negro history, to teach our people our own history? We are at the mercy of the "flotsam and jetsam" of the white writers. The very learned Rev. Alexander Crummell, before the American Negro Academy, stated that he heard J. C. Calhoun say that the inferiority of the Negro was so self-evident that he would not believe him human unless he could conjugate Greek verbs; and yet it must have been evident to Calhoun that in North Carolina there were many Negroes held as slaves who could read and write Arabic.¹ In those days men like Juan Latino, Amo, Capitein, Francis Williams, Rev. J. Pennington, and others could not only conjugate the Greek and Hebrew verbs, but had shown unmistakable evidences of learning, for they had received degrees from the universities of world-famed reputation. Yet in those days there were many whites unrestrained, enjoying the opportunities of education, who could not conjugate Greek roots nor verbs of the spoken language of the land. Yet this barrier was set up to persons restrained by force from the enjoyment of the most ordinary rights.
  • We need in the coming dawn the man who will give us the background for our future; it matters not whether he comes from the cloisters of the university or from the rank and file of the fields. The Anglo-Saxon is effusive in his praises to the Saxon shepherds who lived on the banks of the river Elbe, to whom he pays blind allegiance. 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. When the fact has been put down in the scroll of time, that the Negroes of Africa smelted iron and tempered bronzes at the time Europe was wielding stone implements, that the use of letters was introduced among the savages of Europe about 1500 BC and the European carried them to America about the fifteenth century after the Christian era, that Phoenicia and Palestine will live forever in the memory of mankind since America as well as Europe has received letters from the one and religion from the other, we will feel prouder of the achievements of our sires. We must research diligently the annals of time and bring back from obscurity the dormant example of agriculture, industry, and commerce, upon these the arts and sciences and make common the battleground of our heritage.

Juan Latino (1913)[edit]

  • The remark attributed to John C. Calhoun,' "that the Negro race was so inferior it could not produce a single individual who could conjugate a Greek verb," was accepted half a century ago in this country as the last word on the subject of the inferiority of the Negro. Thomas Jefferson, one of the fathers of the revolution, and a friend of the Negro race, who was not so dogmatic as Calhoun, said: "I think one (Negro) could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid: and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous.... Never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never saw even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. ... Religion indeed, has produced a Phyllis Wheatley, but it could not produce a poet." So much for the American statesmen.
  • In Europe we have had the historian Hume who said in one of his essays that "there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of whom none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity.... In Jamaica, indeed, they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning; but it is likely he is admired for slender accomplishments, like a parrot who speaks a few words plainly."

Quotes about Arturo Alfonso Schomburg[edit]

  • For Arthur Schomburg, the Harlem Renaissance proved to be an excellent environment for conducting his bibliophilic research and an ideal opportunity to promote interest in black history and culture. Responding to the urgent desire of black writers and artists to use "black themes, Schomburg supplied information both from his encyclopedic knowledge and from his private collection. The Harlem Renaissance also stimulated Schomburg himself to write more for publication, and this proved to be his most prolific period.
    • Elinor DesVerney Sinnette, quoted in Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg by Vanessa K Valdés (2018)
  • Schomburg belonged to a circle of "race men" who were also book fiends, sharing and trading recent acquisitions. Before there was such a thing as the New Negro movement, he had cofounded the Negro Society for Historical Research, was a member of the Negro Book Collectors Exchange, and had served as president of the American Negro Academy.... The desire of these men to uncover the forgotten history of black people was matched by a desire to protect and steward that knowledge.
    • Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts quoted in Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg by Vanessa K Valdés (2018)
  • We also missed in the branch library news for February dedicated to Puerto Rico any mention of the Schomburg Collection, at 135th Street and Lenox Avenue. Though the collection itself is dedicated to the Negro people and their history, there is a great deal of material on prominent Negro Puerto Ricans in its files. Besides, Arturo Schomburg, a great figure in the life of the 19th century Puerto Rican in New York was himself a Puerto Rican, born in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico. Its seems to be that one of the main divisions in the New York Public Library system-bearing the name of a great Negro Puerto Rican should at least have been mentioned in a library publication purporting to compile the most important books dealing with the cultural developments and contributions of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans in New York.
    • Jesús Colón A Puerto Rican in New York, and Other Sketches (1961)
  • By building and popularizing a counter-archive of Afrodiasporic history, Schomburg made a radical intervention in the production of historiographic knowledge. His collection and his essays effectively refuted the dominant ideology of white supremacy and the popular and official forms of historiographic knowledge in which this discourse was embedded.
    • Adalaine Holton quoted in Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg by Vanessa K Valdés (2018)
  • His goals in this archival project are to identify and celebrate Black contributions to transamerican civilization, and he was particularly (though not exclusively) prone to research concerning men of African descent. In these lifelong pursuits, Schomburg was extremely successful; the papers and artifacts he gathered became the world's first major collection of transamerican and transatlantic Africana, which is today the African diaspora's largest combined archives.
    • Lisa Sánchez González quoted in Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg by Vanessa K Valdés (2018)

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