Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was an Afro-Puerto Rican historian who moved to the United States and spent his life collecting materials demonstrating the accomplishments of the African diaspora and the scope of Black history.
Who Was Arturo Alfonso Schomburg?
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was a historian, writer, researcher and curator. He amassed a personal collection of 10,000 items related to Black history and the African diaspora. This was transferred to the New York Public Library and became the starting point for today’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Schomburg was also a part of the Harlem Renaissance in the United States and a supporter of independence for his native Puerto Rico.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born on January 24, 1874, in Santurce (then Cangrejos), San Juan, Puerto Rico. His mother, Maria Josefa, was a free Black woman from St. Croix in the Danish Islands (which would become the U.S. Virgin Islands). His father, Carlos Federico Schomburg, was a Puerto Rican of German descent.
Schomburg grew up in Puerto Rico. He remembered a teacher telling him as a schoolboy in San Juan that there were no notable people of African descent and that Black history held no achievements. The incident sparked what would become his lifelong interest in collecting materials about the Black experience around the world.
Schomburg was a student at San Juan’s Instituto Popular and studied Negro literature at St. Thomas College in the Danish Virgin Islands.
Life in New York City
In 1891, at the age of 17, Schomburg moved to New York City. Over the next few years his jobs included elevator operator, bellhop and printer. At night he took classes at Manhattan Central High. He was initiated into the Freemasons in 1892.
A primary focus for Schomburg during this period was independence from Spain for Puerto Rico and Cuba. In 1892, he co-founded Las Dos Antilles, a political club that supported Puerto Rican and Cuban independence.
At the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. Following this, the Puerto Rican independence movement lost momentum, and Schomburg’s political club disbanded.
Schomburg spent much of his life acquiring books, documents, pamphlets, artwork and more tied to Africa’s diaspora in the Americas and Europe. His aim was “to preserve the historical records of the race, arouse race consciousness and race pride, inspire art students and give information to everyone about the Negro.”
Schomburg’s search was conducted by going to rare book stores, contacting book dealers in Europe and reaching out to people across the United States. He asked a correspondent in Detroit to search used furniture stores in Black neighborhoods, saying, “You are bound to pick up rarities like letters from Frederick Douglass.”
Much of Schomburg’s collecting was done around his job at the Bankers Trust Company, where he was employed from 1906 to 1929. He became supervisor of the Caribbean and Latin American Mail Section, thanks in large part to his ability to write in English, Spanish and French. While at work he was able to send out letters regarding his quest for artifacts.
Through 1926, Schomburg accumulated more than 10,000 items demonstrating the breadth of Black and African achievements. These included slave narratives, poems by Phillis Wheatley, correspondence from Toussaint L’Ouverture and music composed by Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Schomburg also researched the African antecedents of people like John James Audubon and Ludwig van Beethoven.
During the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston and others used Schomburg’s materials.
READ MORE: 9 Key Figures of the Harlem Renaissance
Writing and Scholarship
Schomburg co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911. He joined the American Negro Academy in 1914 and served as its president from 1920 to 1928.
Schomburg shared his scholarship by writing for Black periodicals such as The Crisis, Opportunity and The New York Amsterdam News. His famous essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past” was published in Survey Graphic Magazine in 1925, then included that same year in Alain Locke’s anthology The New Negro.
Library and Curation
In 1926, the Carnegie Corporation provided a grant to purchase Schomburg’s collection for $10,000. The materials were then donated to the New York Public Library.
Schomburg used some of this money to travel to Europe, where he continued his research and collecting. In 1931, he became curator of the Negro Collection at Fisk University in Nashville. He greatly expanded the university’s holdings.
Schomburg left Nashville in 1932 and returned to New York City. He then became curator of the same collection he’d passed to the New York Public Library, which was housed at its branch at 135th Street in Harlem.
Death and Legacy
Schomburg died in Brooklyn on June 10, 1938, at the age of 64. He was buried in Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.
In 1972, the research library with Schomburg’s collection was renamed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The Schomburg Center moved into a new building at 135th Street in 1980.
Schomburg’s materials served as a foundation for a collection that today has expanded to more than 10 million items. Both scholars and the public have access to these materials, as well as exhibitions, lectures and discussions organized by the Schomburg Center.
Marriages and Children
Schomburg married Elizabeth Hatcher in 1895. The couple had three children, Máximo Gómez, Arturo Alfonso Jr. and Kingsley Guarionex, before she passed away in 1900.
In 1902, Schomburg wed Elizabeth Morrow Taylor. He had another two sons with her: Reginald Stanfield and Nathaniel José.
Elizabeth Green became Schomburg’s third wife in 1914. They shared three children: Fernando Alfonso, Dolores María and Carlos Plácido.