After a fifth-grade teacher informed him, “Black people have no history, no heroes, no significant moments,” he was inspired to learn more about Black history. Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, also known as Arthur Schomburg, began researching Africa and the diaspora to prove his teacher and racist historians wrong, and over time, he became known as “the Sherlock Holmes of Black History” thanks to his relentless digging for manuscripts, Black achievements, and historical truths.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born on January 24, 1874, in Santurce, Puerto Rico, to Mary Joseph, an African mother from St. Croix, Danish Islands, and Carlos Federico Schomburg, a German father. He was a collector, writer, and significant intellectual figure in the Harlem Renaissance. He attended the Instituto Popular (Popular Institute) in San Juan before attending St. Thomas College in the Danish Virgin Islands to study Negro Literature.
He moved to New York City when he was 17 years old, in 1891. He traveled to Harlem first, then Brooklyn. Schomburg became a vocal proponent of Cuban and Puerto Rican independence, founding Las dos Antillas, a cultural and political organization dedicated to the islands’ liberation.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg changed his focus to the African-American community he was now a part of after the Cuban revolutionary battle ended and his home country, Puerto Rico, became part of the United States. He began researching Black Americans’ ties to Africa, and as he traveled through Black communities in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the United States, and the West Indies, he gathered books, pamphlets, and historical documents about people of African descent all over the world.
He also authored pieces about the history of the African diaspora for major Black publications such as Negro World, The New York Amsterdam News, The Crisis, and Opportunity, based on his collection. Schomburg believed that international Black unity necessitated the establishment of an international network of intellectuals and collectors, therefore he helped established the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911 and spent his own money searching for books and other historical records.
According to one version, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg said in 1913, “We need a collection or catalog of works published by our men and women.” “We need the historian and philosopher to tell us the story of our forefathers with a sharp pen, and for our soul and body to illuminate the chasm that separates us with phosphorescent light.”
Schomburg decided to disprove White historians’ claims that Africans and their descendants were incapable of civilization by gathering evidence from Black thinkers, composers, poets, writers, military heroes, and painters. For Harlem Renaissance greats like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as other Black scholars like W. E. B. Du Bois, Henrik Clarke, and Alain Locke, his selected library collection would be an invaluable resource.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg donated his collection to the New York Public Library in 1926. He took over as curator of the collection at the 135th St. Branch of the Public Library after retiring from his job as a clerk for a Wall Street firm and remained there until his death in 1938 at the age of 64.
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture was renamed in 1973, 35 years after his death, at the New York Public Library branch on 135th Street in Harlem. Schomburg’s collection, according to the New York Times, contains representative works by every major Black author.
“It also contains a 1781 address by Jupiter Hammon, America’s first black poet; copies of Benjamin Banneker’s almanacs, which were used by Thomas Jefferson; the scrapbook of Ira Aldridge, the Black Shakespearean actor; the first novel written by an American black man—”Clotel, or the President’s Daughter” by William Wells Brown; the 81 manuscript volumes of field notes used by Gunnar Myrdal in writing “An American Dilemma,” and histories of such ancient African kingdoms as Ghana, Mele, Songhai, and Benin,” The New York Times wrote.
There are more than “55,000 volumes, 3,000 manuscripts, 25 archival record groups, 2,000 prints and posters, 15,000 photographs, 240 reels of magnetic tape recordings, 5,000 reels of microfilm, as well as phonograph records, sheet music, and newspapers” in the collection, according to the statement.
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and History is still the “premier archive” for the study of Black culture and history in the United States and around the world.