Arturo Alfonso Schomburg – The Puerto Rican Father of Black History

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born in what is now Santurce, Puerto Rico, in 1874, though nearly all information beyond that about the man is conflicting. His mother, Maria Josepha (or Josefa), was a freeborn black woman from one of two islands (St. Croix or St. Thomas) in what was then Danish territory. His father, Carlos Federico Schomburg, was either an immigrant from Germany to Puerto Rico or a Puerto Rican of German descent. This duality of information is a common occurrence in the sources detailing Schomburg’s life, many authors divided between one fact and another. Whatever his exact background, it’s clear that he was propelled to leave a tremendous impact on the world when he helped to introduce black history as a major subject of education and literature in the Americas.

Schomburg himself claimed that his inspiration for his life’s work came from the brazenly racist proclamation of a grade school teacher in Puerto Rico, who told him that black people had “no history, art or culture.” Many historians, however, suspect that his experiences with the African-American community at the turn of the century are what actually spurred him to dig up his people’s history. Schomburg emigrated to New York while still a teenager, and began befriending several Cuban revolutionaries – including the famous Jose Marti. He joined and founded several groups for the independence of both Puerto Rico and Cuba, though supposedly became disillusioned with the cause after the U.S. invaded and occupied the former Spanish territories.

Schomburg had married an African-American woman from Virginia in 1895, and another from North Carolina shortly after her death. They were part of the Great Migration, black Americans fleeing the growing oppression in the South as Reconstruction was giving way to Jim Crow. Through new friends and family, Schomburg was ostensibly exposed to the African-American experience for the first time and began including it with his writings on Afro-Caribbean topics. He started researching the history of Africans and their descendants, and networked with other black scholars to gather and promote texts on black history and culture.

In 1912, Schomburg co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research with John Edward Bruce, and in 1926 he accepted an offer from Ernestine Rose of the New York Public Library to lend his collection of texts to the NYPL for $10,000. He donated somewhere between 5000-10,000 works in total, and used the money to finance travel to Europe and the Caribbean to further his research. He was eventually offered the position of curator for the Center named after him, and held this and many other positions until his death in 1938.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is undoubtedly the father of black history and the main actor behind it being taken seriously as a literary subject in the United States. Historians have started to wake up to this fact in recent years, though this wasn’t always the case. Despite how he’s portrayed now as a celebrated African-American scholar, he wasn’t readily accepted by the black American community according to some. Most sources I found claim Schomburg to have been “lifelong” friends with W.E.B. Dubois, yet I’ve heard from others that he was in fact one of the greatest resistors to Arturo’s appointment as curator of his own collection, which sounds more in line with the often narrow-minded and reactive approach Dubois would take to further his causes. Additionally, while Schomburg’s protégé, Langston Hughes was able to be buried at the Center, the mentor’s family was forced to intern Schomburg himself in what is described by some as a “pauper’s cemetery” (at least at the time) because his former colleagues wouldn’t accept his remains at the Library.

Whatever the real truth, it becomes apparent when looking into his life that the passage of time has muddled the facts of Schomburg’s history. What’s worrying to me is a sort of simplification of his background and work that has regulated it to being a solely African-American subject. Schomburg was born well before the U.S. acquired his homeland of Puerto Rico. He was already an adult and deep into his studies on black history by the time he arrived in the U.S., and it was almost a decade after that he began delving into the North American black experience as opposed to the Afro-Caribbean one he grew up in. Despite what some historians have tried to claim, he did not all of sudden abandon focusing on Afro-Latino issues to dive into African-American subjects, speaking and writing on both for decades after. This petty national divide undercuts the very cause Schomburg worked so hard towards – a Pan-African database of knowledge that all Afro-descendants could learn their history from. Whether in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Virgin Islands, or the U.S., it was all the same struggle for him.

I think it’s also unfair and a little biased for African-American scholars have tried to paint Schomburg as being influenced primarily by his U.S. experience. I can’t speak much for the Danish Virgin Islands, which is where he spent his adolescent years studying, but I know that his childhood home of Puerto Rico is one of a few places where the racial divides take a unique turn. Puerto Rico was one of a few colonies where the free black population outnumbered the slaves. This affected the race-based class system greatly, which already operated outside the One-Drop Rule of the Anglophone territories. Interracial couplings, while still looked down upon by some, were not outlawed, and their offspring were afforded a relatively larger degree of social mobility. That’s why the son of a white Puerto Rican and a black West Indian could freely seek an education, and it’s without a doubt a major instigator for Schomburg’s life dream.

Schomburg was like many Afro-Caribbeans who arrived in the U.S., who rejected a status quo they did not grow up in. Racism is still prevalent in the rest of the Americas, but widespread segregation could not realistically be enforced long-term in countries where blacks were often the majority. They were not raised believing they were subservient or inferior, and knowing that their ancestors had fought to make sure of that. Their influence helped spark the Harlem Renaissance and the wave of Afrocentric literature and arts that followed. Schomburg is arguably one of the most famous of these activists, because he made sure to put it all in writing for future generations.

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