Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, also known as Arthur Schomburg, (January 24, 1874 –June 8, 1938), was a Puerto Rican historian, writer, and activist in the United States who researched and raised awareness of the great contributions that Afro-Latin Americans and Afro-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 was purchased to become the basis of the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, named in his honor, at the New York Public Library branch in Harlem.
Schomburg was born in the town of Santurce, Puerto Rico (now part of San Juan) to María Josefa, a freeborn black midwife from St. Croix, and Carlos Féderico Schomburg, a merchant of German heritage. While Schomburg was in grade school, one of his teachers claimed that blacks had no history, heroes or accomplishments. Inspired to prove the teacher wrong, Schomburg determined that he would find and document the accomplishments of Africans on their own continent and in the diaspora, including Afro-Latinos, such as Jose Campeche, and later Afro-Americans. Schomburg was educated at San Juan’s Instituto Popular, where he learned commercial printing. At St. Thomas College in the Danish-ruled Virgin Islands, he studied Negro Literature.
Schomburg immigrated to New York on April 17, 1891 and settled in the Harlem section of Manhattan. He continued his studies to untangle the African thread of history in the fabric of the Americas. After experiencing racial discrimination in the US, he began calling himself “Afroborinqueño” which means “Afro-Puerto Rican”. He became a member of the “Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico”. He took an active role advocating Puerto Rico’s and Cuba’s independence.
On June 30, 1895 Schomburg married Elizabeth Hatcher of Staunton, Virginia. She had come to New York as part of a wave of migration from the South that would increase in the 20th century and be known as the Great Migration. They had three sons: Maximo Gomez; Arthur Alfonso, Jr. and Kingsley Guarionex Schomburg.
After Elizabeth died in 1900, Schomburg married Elizabeth Morrow Taylor of Williamsburg, North Carolina. They were married on March 17, 1902 and had two sons: Reginald Stanton and Nathaniel José Schomburg.
In 1896, Schomburg began teaching Spanish in New York. From 1901 to 1906 Schomburg was employed as messenger and clerk in the law firm of Pryor, Mellis and Harris, New York City. In 1906, he began working for the Bankers Trust Company. Later, he became a supervisor of the Caribbean and Latin American Mail Section, and held that until he left in 1929. While supporting himself and his family, Schomburg began his intellectual work of writing about Caribbean and African-American history. His first known article, “Is Hayti Decadent?”, was published in 1904 in The Unique Advertiser. In 1909 he wrote Placido, a Cuban Martyr, a short pamphlet about the poet and independence fighter Gabriel de la Concepción Valdéz.
In 1911, Schomburg co-founded with John Edward Bruce the Negro Society for Historical Research, to create an institute to support scholarly efforts. For the first time it brought together African, West Indian and Afro-American scholars. Schomburg was later to become the President of the American Negro Academy, founded in Washington, DC in 1874, which championed black history and literature. This was a period of founding of societies to encourage scholarship in African American history. In 1915, Dr. Carter G. Woodson co-founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) and began publishing the Journal of Negro History. Schomburg became involved in the Harlem Renaissance movement, which spread to other African-American communities in the U.S. The concentration of blacks in Harlem from across the US and Caribbean led to a flowering of arts, intellectual and political movements. He was the co-editor of the 1912 edition of Daniel Alexander Payne Murray’s Encyclopedia of the Colored Race. In March 1925 Schomburg published his essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past” in an issue of the Survey Graphic devoted to the intellectual life of Harlem. It had widespread distribution and influence. The autodidact historian John Henrik Clarke told of being so inspired by the essay that at age seventeen he left home in Columbus, Georgia to seek out Mr. Schomburg to further his studies in African history. Alain Locke included the essay in his edited collection The New Negro.
After the New York Public Library (NYPL) purchased his extensive collection of literature, art and other materials in 1926, they appointed Schomburg curator of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art, named in his honor, at the 135th Street Branch (Harlem) of the Library. It was later renamed the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
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