How this Afro-Puerto Rican scholar became known as ‘the Sherlock Holmes of Black history’

Mildred Europa Taylor January 24, 2022
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, ca. 1910. Public domain image

He was inspired to discover Black history after a 5th-grade teacher told him, “Black people have no history, no heroes, no great moments.” To prove his teacher and racist historians wrong, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, also known as Arthur Schomburg, began research on Africa and the diaspora and over time, he became known as “the Sherlock Holmes of Black History” thanks to his persistent digging for manuscripts, Black achievements and historical truths.

A collector, writer, and key intellectual figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Schomburg was born on January 24, 1874, in Santurce, Puerto Rico to Mary Joseph, his African mother from St. Croix, Danish Islands, and to Carlos Federico Schomburg, his German father. He schooled at San Juan’s Instituto Popular (Popular Institute) and then went to St. Thomas College in the Danish Virgin Islands where he studied Negro Literature.

In 1891 when he was 17, he moved to New York City. He first went to Harlem and then to Brooklyn. Schomburg became an active supporter of Cuban and Puerto Rican independence and founded Las dos Antillas, a cultural and political group that worked for the islands’ independence.

When the Cuban revolutionary struggle collapsed and his home country Puerto Rico became part of the U.S., Schomburg shifted his attention to the African-American community he was now part of. He began studying the connection that Black Americans had with Africa, and as he moved among Black communities from Puerto Rico, Cuba, the U.S., and the West Indies, he collected books, pamphlets and historical documents about people of African descent around the world.

And from his collection, he wrote articles on the history of the African diaspora for major Black periodicals including Negro World, The New York Amsterdam News, The Crisis, and Opportunity. Schomburg believed that international Black unity needed an international network of intellectuals and collectors and so he helped found the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911 and used his own money to search for books and other historical documents.

“We need a collection or list of books written by our men and women,” Schomburg wrote in 1913, according to one report. “We need the historian and philosopher to give us, with trenchant pen, the story of our forefathers and let our soul and body, with phosphorescent light, brighten the chasm that separates us.”

At a time when White historians were arguing that Africans and their descendants were not capable of civilization, Schomburg decided to prove them wrong by collecting evidence of Black philosophers, composers, poets, novelists, military heroes, and painters. His curated library collection would serve as an indispensable resource for the Harlem Renaissance greats including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and other Black scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Henrik Clarke, and Alain Locke.

In 1926, Schomburg sold his collection to the New York Public Library. And after retiring from his job as a clerk for a Wall Street firm, he took over as curator of the collection at the 135th St. Branch of the Public Library until his death in 1938 at the age of 64.

In 1973, that is 35 years after his death, the New York Public Library branch at 135th Street in Harlem was renamed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. That year, the New York Times reported that Schomburg’s collection contains representative works of every major Black author.

“It also has a 1781 address by Jupiter Hammon, America’s first black poet; copies of the almanacs by Benjamin Banneker, who was employed by Thomas Jefferson; the scrapbook of Ira Aldridge, the black Shakespearean actor; the first novel 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.

It said the collection holds 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.”

Today, the Schomburg Center remains the “premier archive” for the study of Black culture and history in the U.S. and the world.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 24, 2022


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