Black History Month: Celebrating the Afro-Puerto Rican ‘Father of Black History’ Arturo Schomburg

By Denise Oliver Velez for Daily Kos

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, historian, writer, and activist was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico in 1874.

Far too many of our fellow citizens on the island of Puerto Rico still have no light, power or potable water and it has been over four damn months since Hurricane Irma hit followed by Maria. Let’s think about the “why” of this unconscionable outrage.

If you think this has nothing to do with “who” Puerto Ricans are you are in denial  and need to wake up and smell the café con leche. It should come as no surprise that issues of race and racism have played a key role in the abandonment of Puerto Rico by White Supremacist-in-Chief Donald Trump and his Republican lackeys. Yes, to be Puerto Rican is an ethnicity—however Puerto Rico has more black history and afro-descended inhabitants than many parts of the U.S. mainland, and the colonial treatment of the U.S. territory is steeped in a steaming pile of mierda  which looks like, smells like, and is racist. 

I made a promesa—a vow, that I was not going to stop writing about Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands (USVI) till everyone on the islands has power and water and decent housing with no tarped roofs, and it looks like that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. As part of that promise I want to spend Black History Month examining and celebrating Black Puerto Rican and USVI history.

It is fitting to open this series with a towering figure of the Harlem Renaissance—to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude for having collected and preserved so much of our black heritage. I speak of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, known as “The Father of Black History,” whose collections formed the core of what is now known as The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the New York Public Library. 

Both Puerto Rico and the USVI can lay claim to Schomburg. In “Arthur ‘Afroborinqueño‘ Schomburg”Robert Knight wrote for The Civil Rights Journal:

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a self-described “Afroborinqueño” (Black Puerto Rican), was born January 24, 1874, of María Josefa and Carlos Féderico Schomburg. His mother was a freeborn Black midwife from St. Croix, and his father a mestizo merchant of German heritage. They lived in Puerto Rico, in a community now known as Santurce. Young Schomburg was educated at San Juan’s Instituto Popular, where he learned commercial printing, and at St. Thomas College in the Danish-ruled Virgin Islands, where he studied Negro Literature.

While his education equipped Schomburg with tools essential to his extraordinary bibliophilia, it was also in school that he encountered the flame which burned throughout his career.  By Schomburg’s own account, it was in the fifth grade that a teacher glibly asserted that people of color had no history, no heroes, no notable accomplishments. Young Schomburg embarked on a lifelong quest to scientifically refute the mythology of racism in the Americas. He became a fiery debater and documentarian of the accomplishments of Afro-Latinos such as Puerto Rican artist José Campeche, Haitian liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the Afro-Cuban general Antonio Maceo.

In 2015, the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City paid homage to Schomburg:

The Schomburg Library in New York City bears his name.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture holds one of the best library collections focused on black history in the world.

The collection was begun by a young black man newly arrived from Puerto Rico named Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Arthur Schomburg (1874–1938), as he was called, worked as an elevator operator, bellhop, porter, and printer. On his own time he followed his passion: reading, writing, and collecting everything he could on the history of Africans and their descendants. It was said that Schomburg had a fifth-grade teacher who told him “Black people have no history, no heroes, no great moments.” He would prove that teacher very wrong.

Schomburg arrived in New York City at the age of 17 and became part of the exciting scene known as the Harlem Renaissance. Here he continued adding books, photographs, artwork, sheet music, newspapers, pamphlets, and memoirs to his growing collection.

In 1926 his whole incredible collection was sold to the 135th Street branch library. Even then Schomburg continued to add to it, often using his own money. When he began serving as curator at the library in 1932, he was able to reach out to young scholars. Schomburg told one scholar, “What you’re calling African history, Negro history, are the missing pages of World history.” After Schomburg’s death in 1938, the library was renamed in his honor.

A Black Puerto Rican–born scholar, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg  (1874–1938) was a well-known collector and archivist whose personal library was  the basis of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York  Public Library. He was an  autodidact who matched wits with university-educated men and women, as well as a prominent  Freemason, a writer, and an institution-builder.

While he spent much of his life in New York City, Schomburg was intimately  involved in the cause of Cuban and Puerto Rican independence. In the aftermath  of the Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1898, he would go on to cofound the Negro  Society for Historical Research and lead the American Negro Academy, all the  while collecting and assembling books, prints, pamphlets, articles, and other ephemera produced by Black men and women from across the Americas and Europe.

His  curated library collection at the New York Public Library emphasized the  presence of African peoples and their descendants throughout the Americas and would serve  as an indispensable resource for the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, including  Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. By offering a sustained look at the life of one of the most important figures of early twentieth-century New York  City, this first  book-length examination of Schomburg’s life as an Afro-Latino suggests new ways of understanding the  intersections of both Blackness and latinidad.

For those of you who would like a great gift for kids, author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator Eric Velasquez have published Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library:

I’m giving thanks today to Arturo Schomburg for preserving and promoting so much of our heritage. 

Perhaps we can pay some of it back by pushing harder to gain economic support for Puerto Rico and the USVI, and by embracing black history as a foundational part of American History.