Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born Jan. 24, 1874, in Santurce, Puerto Rico to Mary Josephina, a Black Cruzan mother, and Carlos Federico Schomburg, a Puerto Rican father of German decent.
He devoted his life to uncovering Africa’s glorious heritage after a fifth-grade teacher told him “Black people have no history, no heroes, no great moments.”
After studying African literature and commercial printing in the Caribbean, Schomburg migrated to Harlem on April 17, 1891. In 1898, he co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research and served as leader of the American Negro Academy. He mingled among exiled Cuban and Puerto Rican nationalists and intellectuals in NYC.
The artistic, intellectual and social boom occurring in Harlem, beginning in 1918, was initially called the “New Negro Movement,” and incorporated primarily African Americans who had recently relocated during the Great Migration from the rural South. Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and John E. Bruce were among them.
However, many Afro-Caribbeans like Hubert Harrison, Marcus Garvey and Schomburg also participated. Once they began communicating together, they realized that the same oppressive system affected them all.
By this time Schomburg had redefined himself as an “Afro Borinqueño,” an “African Puerto Rican,” and he had learned to write English. He scribed articles for several progressive Black periodicals including The Crisis and Opportunity magazines, Negro World, and the New York Amsterdam News newspapers. During March 1925 he self-published his inspirational essay, “The Negro Digs Up His Past,”
The self-taught bibliophile had amassed a vast collection of rare African artifacts accumulated throughout his global travels, and in 1926 the New York Public Library purchased it for $10,000 and displayed them at their 135th St. branch, naming it the Art The collection formed the cornerstone of the Library’s Division of Negro History at its 135th Street Branch in Harlem.
The library appointed Schomburg curator of the collection, which was named in his honor: the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Schomburg used his proceeds from the sale to fund travel to Spain, France, Germany and England, to seek out more pieces of black history to add to the collection. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante named Schomburg on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
“Here we have a Black man with a German last name with a Spanish accent in NYC in the 19th century,” says Vanessa K. Valdés, associate professor at the City College of New York and author of Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. “And so all of that, his very being challenges what we think of blackness.”
Following dental surgery at Brooklyn, he became ill and passed on June 8, 1938. His body was burried at Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills National Cemetery.
“Schomburg was the preeminent researcher and conscious figure that pointed the right path for all Afro descendants to follow,” notes Dr. Georgina Falu, former director of CCNY’s Afro-Latino Studies. “His contribution to the Harlem Renaissance can never be accurately described because there remains years, centuries, of the work he started. We should be attempting to increase that collection of our experiences throughout the diaspora so that everyone will know what we contributed to world history.”
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s work served as an inspiration to Puerto Ricans, Latinos and Afro-Americans alike. The power of knowing about the great contribution that Afro-Latin Americans and Afro-Americans have made to society, helped continuing work and future generations in the Civil rights movement.