A bibliophile is “a collector or lover of books.” And although the title of this week’s column uses that word properly, it’s not as precise as it could be. And that’s because the subject of this article is much more than a bibliophile. Along with being a collector and lover of books, he’s also a collector and lover of manuscripts, slave narratives, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, artifacts, etchings, portraits, and sculptures. In addition, he’s a scholar and a revolutionary.
Who is he? He is Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. And this week, African-centered academics and students, along with many other people, primarily Black and Brown, will celebrate the 144th birthday of the man who was born January 24, 1874.
Born in Puerto Rico to Mary Joseph, a Black woman from St. Croix and Carlos Federico Schomburg, a man with Puerto Rican and German ancestry, Arturo was inspired to investigate his African roots when his fifth grade teacher told all the students in his class that Blacks had no history and contributed nothing to civilization.
However, the more investigation and research he did, the Blacker and prouder he became.
He expanded that research as a student at St. Thomas College in the Virgin Islands where he studied Negro literature in the school’s literary club. And he did it not only to prove that racist teacher wrong but also to prove racist white classmates- as well as many of his color-bigoted light-skinned Puerto Rican classmates- wrong.
In 1891 at age 17, he left the island for New York City, where he settled in Harlem and continued to study African history and added African-American history.
As a result of his extensive studying along with the personal discrimination he experienced because of his darker complexion, he decided to highlight his Blackness by publicly referring to himself as an “Afroborinqueno,” which means a Black Puerto Rican.
Even though he embraced his Blackness, he never forgot his Latino roots. That explains why, while in New York, he joined Las dos Antillas, which fought for independence from Spain not only for his homeland but also for Cuba.
It also explains why he often attended lectures by Puerto Rican revolutionaries like Eugenio Maria de Hostos and Ramon Emeterio Betances and Cuban revolutionaries like Jose Marti.
After working as a Spanish teacher beginning in 1896, he was employed as a researcher at a law firm from 1901-1906. And from 1906-1929, he was employed as a bank supervisor for Caribbean and Latin American accounts. He needed these jobs to provide for his biological family.
But, in his heart and mind, he knew he also needed to provide for his cultural family. That is why he, in addition to engaging in pro-independence activism, co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research (NSHR) in 1911.
He was introduced to the NSHR by John Edward Bruce, a comrade he met in 1892. Because Bruce, like Schomburg, was a cultural bibliophile, they developed a lifelong bond. And that bond was strengthened by the fact that Bruce, who had been born into slavery in 1856, would provide firsthand accounts about the horrors of slavery and the need for Black people and Brown people- who in reality are the same people from Africa- to join together to foment revolution.
At Bruce’s request, Schomburg in 1914 joined (and later was elected president of) the American Negro Academy, an organization of Black men who were intellectuals, lawyers, physicians, authors, ministers, and community activists dedicated to promoting higher education, arts, and science for Black folks. But its ultimate goal, as its mission indicates, was to be “a weapon to... destroy racism.” One of its founding members in 1897 was W.E. B. DuBois.
I must point out that Schomburg has a direct connection to my historic alma mater. In 1913, he gave a speech to Black teachers enrolled in a summer course at the Institute for Colored Youth (a year before it was renamed Cheyney Training School for Teachers) and rallied them to demand that Black history courses be infused into the educational system throughout America.
He proclaimed that the curricula must be “amended to include the practical history of the Negro race from the dawn of civilization to the present time.”
Beginning in 1924, he traveled to Spain, France, Germany, and England where he found much of his culturally enlightening material about Negro literature. What he discovered and acquired there and throughout America, as well as in Cuba, resulted in his collection of 5,000 books, 3,000 manuscripts, 2,000 etchings and portraits, and several thousand pamphlets, newspapers, and magazines.
Fisk University, an HBCU in Tennessee, was so impressed that, from 1929-1932, it had him serve there as curator of his vast collection.
Harlem Renaissance giants like Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and DuBois were also impressed with him and accordingly developed a close friendship with him.
Shortly after severe complications from dental surgery and previous ailments, Schomburg became an ancestor in 1938 at age 64. Two years later, the New York Public Library renamed its division of Black history, literature, and prints in his honor.
It was none other than John Henrik Clarke, one of the most influential African-centered minds of the twentieth century who told audiences that at age 17 he left his Georgia home to meet Schomburg in order to learn more about Black history. And of all the great accolades Schomburg ever received, one of the greatest came from Clarke, who said he was ecstatic when he met the man who “opened up my eyes to the fact that I came from an old people, older than slavery, older than the people who oppressed us.”
Let’s allow Schomburg to open our eyes too and make us truly “woke.” We can do that by visiting the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem at 515 Malcolm X Boulevard. For more information, log on to nypl.org/locations/schomburg.
But first, on January 24, say, “Happy 144th Birthday, Brother Afroborinqueno!”