It was barely a century ago that a young man arrived in New York on a mission that would bridge two cultures, span several centuries, and provide a lasting structure for understanding and respect among African-, Latino- and European-Americans.
He hunted the hidden treasures of African history, gathered the most significant collection of Black memorabilia, and created a global research center that carries on his work to this day. With a precision that rivals today's electronic databases, Arthur A. Schomburg established his position as a prime architect of the Information Superhighway of Black History.
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.
Schomburg immigrated to New York on April 17, 1891, where he was active in the decolonization movement, and where he continued amassing the materials needed to further untangle the African thread of history in the fabric of the Americas.
In 1911 Schomburg co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research, an archival institute which published several important papers on black history. In 1914 he was inducted into, and later presided over, the American Negro Academy which championed black history and combatted "scientific racism" of the day. He went on to direct acquisitions for Fisk University's Negro Collection, which he eventually curated. Throughout these years, Schomburg was a leading light of the legendary Harlem Renaissance.
But the keystone of Schomburg's legacy was the world-renowned collection he had built over the years. Comprising thousands of slave narratives, manuscripts, rare books, journals, artwork and other remnants of African history, his collection was presented to the New York Public Library's Division of Negro History in 1926 through a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation. Schomburg eventually curated his own collection, now renamed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Today the collection comprises nearly six million items, including photographs, films, audio recordings and institutional archives. The Center's extensive bibliographic records have recently been cataloged on CD-ROM for those using modern technology to research ancient history.
Among the thousands of students, scholars and artists affected by Schomburg is one of his early proteg‚s, the noted historian Dr. John Henrik Clarke. The child of Alabama sharecroppers, Clarke sought out Schomburg at his Harlem collection after having read his seminal essay, "The Negro Digs Up His Past." Like his mentor, Clarke had himself endured white denials of black history.
In an interview with Civil Rights Journal, Clarke described his first encounter with the man who "opened up my eyes to the fact that I came from a old people, older than slavery, older than the people who oppressed us."
"He was holding down the desk. I was a teenager then. So I wanted to know the whole history of my people all over the world, henceforth, in the hour þ his lunch hour!
"'Sit down, son,' he said. 'What you're calling African history, Negro history, are the missing pages of World history. Read the history of the people who took you out of history, and you will find out why they were so insecure they had to take you out of history, why they could not stand for your history to compete with theirs'
"Once I began to have some background in European history, I could bring African history into proper focus. But Arthur Schomburg, more than any other single human being, set me in motion in the pursuit of a career as a teacher of history," says the 80-year old Dr. Clarke, Professor Emeritus of African and World History at Hunter College's Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies.
Schomburg's contribution to social progress was not limited to one culture. Schomburg spent nearly a decade as a militant activist in the liberation movements of Puerto Rico and Cuba. He was Secretary of Las Dos Antillas, a movement dedicated to independence for the island colonies of Puerto Rico and Cuba, and he was also active in the independista organization Club Borinquen Y Betances. Schomburg associated closely with such hemispheric liberationists as Jos‚ Marti, Maximo Gomez, and Antonio Maceo, along with his political mentor, Ramon Betances of Puerto Rico. In numerous statements, Schomburg called for Puerto Rico to be neither a colony of Spain nor of the United States, anticipating the issue that would not be resolved until the long-awaited statehood plebiscite of 1994.
With his own multicultural heritage, Schomburg was himself a microcosm of the global issues he studied. Perhaps the most eloquent act of integrating his Latino and African roots was Schomburg's documentation of a pre-1619 slave landing in Virginia by a Spanish ship in 1526. Schomburg explored the remnants of an African colony in Seville, Spain, demonstrating the ubiquity and accomplishment of Africans at the mutual root of the Afro-Latino dilemma in this hemisphere: colonial Europe.
Still, Schomburg's Latino roots are less widely recognized than his African heritage, even in some quarters of the Latino community. Richard Perez, Director of the New York based Community Service Society, and himself a Puerto Rican, understands why:
"Because of the influences of slavery and colonialism in Puerto Rico, like many other nations in the Caribbean, a system of color prejudice and hierarchy developed on the island as well. I think one of the most important things is that Schomburg confronted very directly the African diaspora and its influence on the Caribbean.
"Puerto Ricans are a multiracial people -- the Taino Indians, the Spanish colonizers and the African slaves -- and as a multiracial people it was difficult for us to establish our identity in a country that defines racial identity only as black and white. Schomburg's research in that direction has made it a little easier, and was a contribution that we have been able to build on."
Perez says Schomburg is becoming increasingly embraced by the Latino community as educational opportunities grow. Part of that growth was demonstrated at "Arturo Schomburg: From Santurce to Harlem," a multidisciplinary symposium held in May, 1995, in coordination with the Schomburg Center and Hunter College's Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
Meanwhile, America remains infected by the occasional herpetic eruptions of the oxymoronic concept of "scientific racism". Lacking Schomburg's insight, some statisticians, charlatans, politicians, and even college presidents labor mightily under the "dumbbell curve" of tribal insecurity. Rather than seriously studying the inevitable historical consequences of racial, civil, and economic injustice, they would instead attribute social disparity in America to presumed "genetic and hereditary" shortcomings, family pathology and "speciation" among people of color.
It is clear that if Arthur Schomburg were alive today, he would have much to say about education, equal opportunity, discrimination, affirmative action and other pressing issues emerging from the human and civil rights movements in the six decades since his death. As it is, we have his own words to guide us:
"The American Negro must rebuild his past in order to make his future. Though it is orthodox to think of America as the one country where it is unnecessary to have a past, what is a luxury for the nation as a whole becomes a prime social necessity for the Negro. For him, a group tradition must supply compensation for persecution, and pride of race the antidote for prejudice. History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generation must repair and offset."
The message applies equally well for all Americans who would enter the 21st Century liberated from the crippling ignorance of their shared past. Or, to paraphrase Schomburg, America must face its past in order to see its future.