Biography of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, African History Expert

The noted scholar encouraged Black people to dig deep into their past

Arthur Alfonso Schomburg black and white picture.

Smith Collection/Gado / Getty Images

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (Jan. 24, 1874–June 8, 1938) was a Black Puerto Rican historian, writer, and activist, a prominent figure during the Harlem Renaissance. Schomburg collected literature, art, and other artifacts pertaining to people of African descent. His collections were purchased by the New York Public Library. Today, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is one of the most prominent research libraries focused on the African diaspora.

Fast Facts

  • Known For: Activist, writer, historian during the Harlem Renaissance
  • Born: January 24, 1874, in Santurce, Puerto Rico
  • Parents: Maria Josefa and Carlos Federico Schomburg
  • Died: June 8, 1938, in Brooklyn, New York
  • Published Works: "Is Hayti Decadent?" "Placido a Cuban Martyr," "The Negro Digs Up His Past"
  • Spouses: Elizabeth Hatcher, (m. June 30, 1895–1900), Elizabeth Morrow Taylor
  • Children: Arthur Alfonso Jr., Maximo Gomez, Kingsley Guarionex, Reginald Stanton, Nathaniel Jose.
  • Notable Quotes: "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. We should cling to them just as blood is thicker than water.”

Early Life and Education

Schomburg was born on January 10, 1874, in Santurce, Puerto Rico to Maria Josefa, a Black midwife from St. Croix, and Carlos Federico Schomburg, a merchant and son of a German immigrant to Puerto Rico. As a child, Schomburg was told by one of his teachers that people of African descent had no history and no achievements. As Elinor Des Verney Sinnette explained in her book, "Arthur Alfonso Schomburg: Black Bibliophile & Collector"—the first full biography of Schomburg, published in 1989—about the challenges Schomburg faced during primary school:

"Arturo became aware of racism fairly early in life. His fifth-grade teacher is said to have told him that black people had no history, no heroes, no great moments—and because of that remark, young Arturo became fired with an ambition to find evidence of his people's past."

Sinnette also noted that Schomburg may have been influenced by a need to explore his sense of identity. She wrote that Schomburg's White classmates spoke of the "courageous deeds" of their ancestors. "These comments and boasts raised questions for Arturo about the accomplishments of his ancestors," Sinnette wrote, adding:

"In order to match his white friends' stories, Schomburg began to inquire about the history of people of color, not just in Puerto Rico, but throughout the Caribbean. The Haitian revolution captured his imagination and the revolutionary black revolutionary Toussaint Louverture became one of his early heroes."

These events inspired Schomburg to dedicate the rest of his life to discovering the important accomplishments of people of African descent.

Schomburg attended Instituto Popular in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where he studied commercial printing. He later attended St. Thomas College in the Danish Virgin Islands, where he studied Negro Literature.

Move to New York City

By 1891, Schomburg felt that "his destiny did not lie in the Caribbean" and on April 17 of that year he moved to New York City, in search of better opportunities and a better future, Sinnette noted. Once in New York, Schomburg became an activist with the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico. As an activist with this organization, Schomburg played an integral role in fighting for Puerto Rico and Cuba's independence from Spain.

Living in Harlem, Schomburg coined the term "afroborinqueno" to celebrate his heritage as a Latino of African descent. Black people faced great discrimination in New York City in the 1890s and early 1900s, according to the Schomburg Center, a part of the New York Public Library. They were "denied work as longshoremen, street cleaners, baggage handlers, cement carriers, and garment workers," the center notes.

Despite these prevailing conditions of racial discrimination and restrictions, Schomburg was able to work a variety of jobs, including an elevator operator, printer, Spanish teacher, porter, and clerk at a law firm. During some of his early time in New York, Schomburg attended night classes at Manhattan Central High School. Though Schomburg was able to find employment in jobs generally denied to other Black people due to discrimination, he still experienced racism. For example, Schomburg joined—and was a long-term member of—the Prince Hall Lodge, a Black Masonic group in New York City. But, as biographer Sinnette wrote:

"White members of America's freemasonry lodges resisted recognizing black Masons. To support their racist attitude, white Masons branded Prince Hall masonry as illegitimate."

Schomburg developed a passion for recording the history of the Prince Hall Masons and, in general, for identifying artifacts that disproved the notion that people of African descent had no history or achievements. Schomburg's first article, "Is Hayti Decadent?" appeared in a 1904 issue of The Unique Advertiser. By 1909, Schomburg wrote a profile on the poet and independence fighter Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdez titled "Placido a Cuban Martyr."

Esteemed Historian

In the early 1900s, Black men such as Carter G. Woodson and W.E.B. Du Bois were encouraging others, including Schomburg, to learn Black history. During this time, Schomburg established the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911 with John Howard Bruce. The purpose of the group was to support the research efforts of Black United States, African, and Caribbean scholars. As a result of Schomburg's work with Bruce, he was appointed the president of the American Negro Academy In this leadership position, Schomburg co-edited the "Encyclopedia of the Colored Race."

Little has been recorded about how Schomburg conducted his research and gathered his artifacts during these years, but Sinnette noted that he received a great deal of help and guidance from Black intellectuals and writers, such as Du Bois and Bruce. Nevertheless, Schomburg managed to gather sufficient artifacts, photos, articles, and other types of information that he wrote a number of important articles about Black history.

Schomburg's essay "The Negro Digs Up His Past" was published in a special issue of Survey Graphic, which promoted the artistic endeavors of Black writers. The essay was later included in the anthology "The New Negro" edited by Alain Locke. Schomburg's essay influenced many Black people to begin studying their past. In it, Schomburg wrote that "Black people have to dig deep into their own history in order to affirm themselves in the face of ongoing oppression," according to Polite on Society, a website that focuses on Black literature, social, and political commentary. Schomburg wrote:

“Though it is orthodox to think of America as the one country where it is unnecessary to have a past, what is luxury for the nation as a whole becomes a prime social necessity for the Negro.”

Schomburg also wrote in the essay that in the course of history, the Black person has been "an active collaborator, and often a pioneer, in the struggle for his own freedom and advancement."

New York Public Library Curator

In 1926, the New York Public Library purchased Schomburg's collection of literature, art, and other artifacts for $10,000. Schomburg was appointed as the curator of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. Schomburg used the money from the sale of his collection to add more artifacts of African history to the collection and traveled to Spain, France, Germany, England, and Cuba.

As with his earlier efforts to gather artifacts, biographers have recorded little about how and where Schomburg collected information during his 1926 trip to Europe. Another Schomburg biographer, Vanessa K. Valdés, did briefly explain that Schomburg traveled to Europe for several months:

"...recovering documents from one of Spain's most prominent archives, the Archivo de las Indias, among others, and revealing the presence of men and women of African descent in the Spanish-speaking Americas and the Iberian peninsula prior to the English establishment of Jamestown in 1619. He also salvaged the life stories of African-descended scholars, writers, and church officials living in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries in the Americas and Europe."

In addition to his position with the New York Public Library, Schomburg was appointed a curator of the Negro Collection at Fisk University's library. Throughout Schomburg's career, he was honored with memberships in many Black organizations. including the Men's Business Club in Yonkers, New York, Loyal Sons of Africa, and Prince Hall Masonic Lodge.

Death and Legacy

Schomburg died in 1938 in Brooklyn, New York, and is interred in Cypress Hills Cemetery. 

In 1940, the New York Public Library renamed its entire Black history collection as the Schomburg Collection. In 1972, the 135th Street branch of the library was renamed as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The center, on its website, explains its purpose and sums up Schomburg's legacy:

"The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has preserved, protected, and fostered a greater understanding of the Black experience through its collections, exhibitions, programs, and scholarship. In response to the uprisings across the globe demanding justice for Black lives, the Schomburg Center has created a Black Liberation Reading List. The titles on the list represent books we and the public turn to regularly as activists, students, archivists, and curators, with a particular focus on books by Black authors and those whose papers we steward."
View Article Sources
  1. Sinnette, Elinor Des Verney. Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, Black Bibliophile & Collector: a Biography. Wayne State University Press, 1989.

  2. “1866-1915.” Black New Yorkers, Schomburg Center, New York Public Library.

  3. “‘The Negro Digs Up His Past’- Commentary.” Polite On Society, 4 Feb. 2020.

  4. The Negro Digs Up His Past, Arthur Schomburg's Example.” Reclaiming Our Way, 4 Feb. 2014, orondeamiller.com.

  5. Valdes, Vanessa K. Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. State Univ of New York PR, 2018.

  6. Florentino, Wilfredo, et al. “Black History Matters: The Case for an Arturo Alfonso Schomburg Subway Station.” Streetsblog New York City, 3 July 2020.

  7. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.” The New York Public Library, nypl.org.

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Lewis, Femi. "Biography of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, African History Expert." ThoughtCo, Dec. 15, 2020, thoughtco.com/arturo-alfonso-schomburg-biography-45207. Lewis, Femi. (2020, December 15). Biography of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, African History Expert. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/arturo-alfonso-schomburg-biography-45207 Lewis, Femi. "Biography of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, African History Expert." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/arturo-alfonso-schomburg-biography-45207 (accessed September 16, 2021).