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Schomburg Collections Celebrate Black Achievement

Schomburg Collections planted seeds that continue to inspire, educate and grow to this day. Initially started in the late 1800s by Afro-Puerto Rican Historian Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the vast assemblage features a wide range of works by Black intellectuals, chefs, scientists, artists and more. His collections fueled early activism, fed the Harlem Renaissance and remain a powerful resource at the Schomburg Center of the New York Public Library.

Schomburg (1874-1938) was born to a mother from St. Croix, Virgin Islands, with African roots, and a white father of Puerto Rican and German descent. Educated in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, he said that a grade-school teacher told him Black people had no history or heroes, and had made no significant contributions to the world.

Driven to prove that belief wrong, Schomburg dedicated his life to gathering a robust body of evidence to the contrary.

In his seminal 1925 essay The Negro Digs Up His Past Schomburg wrote:

“The Negro has been a man without history because he has been considered a man without a worthy culture.”

By devoting his life to researching Black achievements, Arturo Schomburg became a stellar example of the social leader whose very existence his childhood teacher denied.

In her book Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg historian Vanessa K. Valdez writes that Schomburg scoured bookstores for texts written by and about men and women of African heritage. He wrote about their triumphs in articles, published bibliographies, gave lectures, organized exhibitions and formed organizations to uplift and preserve Black history and culture.

“Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is an innovative and pioneering figure of early twentieth-century New York City, as a book collector and archivist; well known for those activities he was also an autodidact, a prominent Freemason, a writer, and an institution builder.”

According to Valdez, the Schomburg Collections served as an invaluable resource for important figures of the New Negro Movement and Harlem Renaissance (1920s to1930s) including W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter G. Woodson, Alain L. Locke, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. 

In a lifetime of significant contributions, following are just a few highlights from the Shomburg Collections held by the New York Public Library (NYPL).

Schomburg Engaged In Freedom Movements

Schomburg studied African literature and commercial printing in the Caribbean. In 1891 he migrated to New York where he lived among exiled Cuban and Puerto Rican nationalists and intellectuals. He coined the term “afroborinqueno” to celebrate his heritage as a Latino of African descent.

According to the NYPL:

“…because of his experiences with racial discrimination. Schomburg’s identification as an Afro-Latino would influence his quest for knowledge for the rest of his life. He would go on to advocate for Puerto Rican and Cuban independence from Spain, teach Spanish, and write scholarship about Caribbean and African-American history.”


New York Public Library Bought Schomburg Collections

Over the decades he archived thousands of contributions of Afro- and Afro-Latin descendants to literature, music and photography as well as religion, economics, politics and popular culture. Schomburg also honored the work of performers including the great coloratura soprano Marie Selika Williams, operatic singer Sissieretta Jones and popular performer Aida Overton Walker.

Black intellectuals of the Harlem Renaissance embraced him.

According to the New York Public Library (NYPL)

“In 1926 the Carnegie Corporation funded The New York Public Library’s purchase of Schomburg’s private collection for $10,000”.

They named him founder and curator of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. This would mark the beginning of the 135th Street branch’s transformation into the Schomburg Center.

Lisa Herndon, Communications and Publications Manager, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture writes that his:

collection of books, manuscripts, and artwork became the cornerstone of the Schomburg Center’s collections. His circle of friends included literary legends such as Zora Neale Hurston, James Weldon Johnson, and Carter G. Woodson. His collections have signed copies of their books and one once owned by activist Mary Church Terrell.

Digital files from the Schomburg Collections, special shows like the Black Comic Book Festival, and research centers can be accessed here at NYPL.

Writings and Organizations Still Inspire

Schomburg was a prolific writer and organizer whose work remains vital. His earliest published writings from the 1890s were for Patria, the newspaper of the Cuban Revolutionary Party founded by José Martí.

Through his work for the Negro Society for Historical Research, co-founded with John Edward Bruce, Schomburg wrote about the lives and struggles of black people in New York, the United States, and abroad. According to NYPL:

“Arturo Schomburg was a contributor to many major Black periodicals of his day, including The Crisis, Opportunity, Negro World, and The New York Amsterdam News. Essays by Schomburg were featured in The New Negro, Alain Locke’s influential 1925 anthology, as well as Negro Anthology, a 1934 compilation of Black literature edited by Nancy Cunard.”

Schomburg also reviewed books and wrote A Bibliographic Checklist of American Negro Poetry, published by book dealer Charles F. Heartman, In addition to writing featured articles, he was a prolific writer of letters to editor, for both Black and white newspapers.

Many of his writings can be accessed online at NYPL’s electronic databases. This is a complete list of his writings.


Schomburg’s Cookbook Proposal Honored Black Cooks

Included in the Schomburg Collections are the outline and design he intended for an upcoming cookbook. He planned to compile 400 Afro-Atlantic recipes that showcased the breadth of “Black genius and ingenuity” in the kitchen. Although he never finished it, the plan remained in the NYPL center.

In 2019 two cookbooks were published, both inspired by Schomburg.

The final chapter of Recipes for Respect: African American Meals and Meaning, by Rafia Zafar includes a detailed analysis of Schomburg’s planned cookbook.

The second book, Jubilee, was written by Toni Tipton-Martin.  In her first book, The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African-American Cookbooks Tipton-Martin used recipes from hundreds of cookbooks.  One example is that published by former slave-turned-culinary expert and businesswoman,  What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Southern Cooking.

Tipton-Martin writes that at the heart of her second book, Jubilee:

 “is the inspiring work of Arturo Schomburg who was the star of the Harlem Renaissance dedicate to unearthing black contributions to history and culture.”

According to Tipton-Martin  Schomburg voiced his interest in black cooking as an expression of black achievement in the 1920s.

“Schomburg believed that black cooking ‘developed along two lines;–cabin cooking, known for ingenuity with less-desirable ingredients, and cooking for the wealthy, where an alaborate table set with fancy food marked a family’s wealth and social standing.”

If His Teacher Could Know Schomburg’s Work Now

Arturo Schomburg made significant contributions to our world through his extensive writing, collecting, and research. More importantly, the seeds of his work continue to grow and give life to new works.

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