Updated: May 13, 2019
Arthur Alfonso Schomburg was an important intellectual dignitary in the Harlem Renaissance; he is the historical figure that we will feature this month as we continue to celebrate the 110th anniversary of the NAACP. In this article, we will highlight the significant contributions and the important legacy that this history maker has bequeathed to America and to the culture of Africans of the diaspora.
Schomburg was born January 24, 1874 in Santurce, Puerto Rico to Mary Joseph, his African mother from St. Croix, Danish Islands and to Carlos Federico Schomburg, his German father. He attended school at San Juan’s Instituto Popular (Popular Institute) followed by St. Thomas College in the Danish Virgin Islands where he studied Negro Literature.
As a young boy, Schomburg’s teacher told him that Black History was a farce. That was all he needed to fuel his life-long passion, research on Africa and the diaspora (dispersion of its people from their original homeland), so much so that he would come to be referred to as the Sherlock Holmes of Black History.
At the age of 17, Schomburg moved to New York City, first to Harlem and then to Brooklyn. As a young man, he was an active supporter of Cuban and Puerto Rican independence; he cofounded the political club Las Dos Antilles. In the aftermath of the Spanish, Cuban and American War of 1898, he co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research and served as the leader of the American Negro Academy. At the same time, he passionately amassed historical documents that included books, prints, pamphlets, and articles produced by Africans in the Americas and in Europe. From his collection, Schomburg wrote articles on the history of the African diaspora for major black periodicals including The Crisis, Opportunity, Negro World, The New York Amsterdam News and other publications.
In 1926, Schomburg sold his collection to the New York Public Library (NYPL). Then known as the Arthur A. Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art, the collection was deposited at the 135th St. branch library, where it became part of the Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints. His curated library collection 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, Zora Neale Hurston and other greats.
In 1928, Schomburg left New York City to serve as the curator of the Negro Collection at Fisk University in Nashville, TN. Before leaving Fisk, he had established a distinguished collection of Negro works very similar to his own. In 1932, he returned home to serve as curator of his collection at the NYPL.
Schomburg was married three times and, interestingly enough, all three wives were named Elizabeth. In 1895, he married his first wife, Elizabeth Hatcher, known by her middle name, Bessie. To this union, three sons were born: Maximo Gomez, Arthur Alfonso, Jr., and Kingsley Guarionex. Bessie died in 1900. Following her death, in 1902, Schomburg married Elizabeth Morrow Taylor. From this second marriage two sons were born: Reginald Stanton and Nathaniel Jose’ Schomburg, but she also died early. In 1914, he married his third wife, Elizabeth Green and they would have three more children, two sons, Fernando and Placido Carlos and one daughter, Dolores Marie.
At the age of 64, Arthur Alonzo Schomburg died June 10, 1938. He was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.
It would be 35 years after Schomburg’s death that, in 1973, the New York Public Library branch at 135th Street in Harlem would be renamed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Schomburg’s collection was considered “a visible monument to the life’s work of Arthur Schomburg. It stands for itself, quietly and solidly for all time, a rich and inexhaustible treasure store for scholars and laymen alike, the materialization of the foresight to industry and scholarship of Schomburg.” This was according to Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the one-time head of the National Urban League’s publication, Opportunity, and later the chair of Fisk University’s social science department in his 1939 tribute to Schomburg.
Thanks to Arthur Schomburg, no African-American child will ever have to think his/her history is a farce. The world-class Schomburg Center is everlasting proof of the contributions and history of Africans in the diaspora for future generations.
Anita Fleming-Rife, Ph.D., Author
Janice Lintz, Editor