The name of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (better known as Arthur A. Schomburg in the U.S.) is probably better known to the African American community than among Puerto Ricans. Even before his death in 1938, the Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture in New York had become, since the 1970s, one of the largest and most used repositories for recovered materials documenting the African experience around the world. Schomburg’s valuable library collection has opened the way for scholars and students to learn more about a legacy often neglected in the traditional histories of most countries.
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1874, he was the natural son of a black laundress from the island of St. Thomas and a merchant father of German background living on the island. Little is known about his early life in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. As an adult, he used to tell a story about his years growing up in Puerto Rico, when he became aware of racial prejudice after a teacher’s remark that blacks had no history and no heroes; a comment that would set out the course for the rest of his life. This incident inspired Schomburg’s subsequent quest to recover the history of Afro-descendant populations around the world. In his adult years, he became an avid bibliophile and devoted most of his life to assembling a remarkable collection of books, drawings, and other materials documenting the experiences of the various African diasporas.
Before he left Puerto Rico for New York in 1891, Schomburg worked as a typographer in a San Juan print shop and also spent some time among the tabaqueros (cigar workers), a self-educated socially and politically-aware group of artisans. He brought some letters of introduction to New York that placed him in contact with some Puerto Rican tabaqueros involved in the Antillean separatist movement. In New York City, he attended night school in order to receive a high school diploma and worked as an elevator operator, bellhop, and printer. A light-skinned mulatto, he wanted to pursue higher education and study law, but prevailing racial barriers and segregation laws and practices that prevailed in U.S. society, along with his limited financial resources prevented him from pursuing this career.
Schomburg spent most of the decade of the 1890s collaborating with the Antillean separatist movement along with many other Puerto Rican patriots of the working class and more privileged social sectors. He joined Puerto Rican émigrés Sotero Figueroa and Pachín Marín in the founding of Club Borinquen in 1892, the first of many other subsequent clubs aimed at organizing Puerto Rican support for Antillean independence. A few years later he was Secretary of the Club Dos Antillas [The Two Antilles Club], another separatist organization. He also was initiated in freemasonry and joined the lodge, El Sol de Cuba (Cuba’s Sun). This was the beginning of many decades of involvement in the black Masonic movement.
The Spanish-American War (also known as Spanish-Cuban-American War) of 1898 added an unexpected twist to the political destinies of Cuba and Puerto Rico. After the U.S. invasion of the islands, many separatists returned to their island homelands while others remained in their countries of exile. For Schomburg, the postwar years marked a growing estrangement from New York’s Puerto Rican community and an increased connection with his black roots and the African American community. Married to an African American woman, he Anglicized his name and moved to the black section of Harlem. There he developed long-standing friendships with many prominent black intellectuals and artists from the United States and the Caribbean and joined the Pan-African movement that also influenced the work of many leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance.
From 1926 to 1929 Schomburg worked at the Bankers Trust Company, first as a messenger and, in later years, as the supervisor of the foreign mailing section. But the passion that occupied most of his life was collecting thousands of manuscripts and documents related to the African heritage worldwide. He accomplished this task mostly by using his own modest income to pay for travel and the purchasing of materials. His passionate embrace of his African heritage and his ever-growing collection made him a cofounder of the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911 and led to his election as President of the American Negro Academy in 1922. His vast compilation of books and documents was sold to the New York Public Library in 1926 which, a few years later, appointed him curator of his own collection. After complications from dental surgery, Schomburg passed away in Brooklyn in 1938 at the age of 64.
Schomburg, however, was not a prolific writer. Most of his available writings consist of newspaper and journal articles. In the essay, “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” he stresses the need for Blacks to reclaim and document their heritage and to establish a Chair of Negro History at a major university, making him a precursor of the African American Studies movement of the late 1960s and 70s. His essay “Juan Latino” is one of several biographical profiles of Hispanic black artists who he considered deserving of recognition, emphasizing the importance of building up an historical legacy for those who had been erased from history by the forces of racism and prejudice.
Lewis, Femi. “Biography of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, African History Expert. The noted scholar encouraged Black people to dig deep into their past”. https://www.thoughtco.com/arturo-alfonso-schomburg-biography-45207. Consulted March 17, 2021.
Norat, Herbert. “Arturo A. Schomburg: su vida y su legado”. New York Public Library, https://www.nypl.org/blog/2021/02/10/arturo-schomburg-su-vida-y-legado. Consulted March 17, 2021.
Hoffnung-Garskof, Jesse. “Las migraciones de Arturo Schomburg: Ser Antillano, Negro y Puertorriqueño en Nueva York. 1891-1917”. Traducción de Edgardo Pérez Morales. U-M CENTER FOR LATIN AMERICAN AND CARIBBEAN STUDIESTRANSLATING THE AMERICAS. Consulted March 17, 2021.
January 24, 1874
Santurce, Puerto Rico
June 10, 1938
Brooklyn, New York
Author: Dr. Edna Acosta-Belén
Updated: February 23, 2021
Reviewed by: Dr. Lizette Cabrera Salcedo, March 17, 2021