Arturo Alfonso Schomburg Played an Integral Role in Founding African Studies

Puerto Rican born advocate of national independence and historical reclamation sought to document the contributions of Black people worldwide

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By Abayomi Azikiwe

Born in 1874 in Puerto Rico, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg entered a whirlwind of anti-colonial struggles which were inextricably linked to the abolition of African enslavement.

Legalized slavery in Puerto Rico and Cuba existed many years after the United States Civil War during 1861-1865. Uprisings erupted in Cuba and Puerto Rico in 1868, the same year in which the 14th Amendment was enacted by the U.S. Congress, ostensibly designed to provide full citizenship rights to African people.

During the war between the states, the-then President Abraham Lincoln, as a political and military maneuver, issued the Emancipation Proclamation taking effect on January 1, 1863. However, it would take the decisive defeat of the Confederacy in April 1865 to secure the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which was ratified by the conclusion of 1865.

Brazil,  under the monarchical rule of a largely Portuguese-dominated ruling class, did not end the enslavement of Africans until the uprisings of 1888. Although some Africans in Brazil had broken away from slavery as early as the 17th century to form their own Quilombos, independent communities in rebellion against Lisbon, the economic system of involuntary servitude would continue for centuries.

These developments unfolded up to two decades or more after the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War and the beginning of what became a failed effort aimed at democratic Reconstruction in the late 1860s, through the concluding decades of the 19th century. Brazil, where it is said that more Africans were captured and enslaved than in any other region of the Western Hemisphere, had gained independence from Portugal during the first decades of the 19th century. This form of independence left unresolved the question of African enslavement requiring a deeper movement which evolved in the 1880s.

With specific reference to Cuba and Puerto Rico, scholar Vanessa K. Valdes in her political biography of Schomburg entitled “Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg”, examines the origins and development of this historical figure. His trajectory transcended conventional academic categorization where his beginning in the independence movements for Puerto Rico and Cuba later led to a broader and extensive intervention in debates surrounding the role of people of African descent within world historical studies.

Valdes says of the events in Puerto Rico and Cuba in the 1860s and 1870s, that: “The last decades of the nineteenth century were a time of upheaval for the two remaining Spanish colonies in the Caribbean, as creole elites created divergent visions for the futures of Puerto Rico and Cuba. Eighteen sixty-eight saw simultaneous uprisings, the Grito de Lares in Puerto Rico and the Grito de Yara in Cuba, while the former was suppressed within days, the latter sparked the Ten Years’ War, a conflict that ended in a stalemate, with Cuba still a colony and slavery remaining the social, political, and economic foundation of that society. Whereas the majority of Cuban revolutionaries both on the island and in exile labored for complete independence by the last decade of the nineteenth century, Puerto Rico’s political scene was more complicated, with divisions present both within the leadership on the island itself as well as in the New York exile community.” (Valdes, p. 28)

Schomburg would participate in the political work surrounding the independence movements against Spain in relation to Puerto Rico and Cuba after relocating to the U.S. in 1891 at the age of 17. Nonetheless, his migration to New York City at this time coincided with monumental changes within the economic and social character of the U.S. which impacted both class and racial dimensions of Black people from the entire Hemisphere.

Archival and Bibliographic Contributions to the Pan-African Movement

Rapid industrialization in the U.S. by the close of the 19th century attracted migrant workers from rural areas within the U.S. along with others from Europe and the Caribbean. The failure of Reconstruction in the former Confederate states was an extremely violent affair for African Americans. Many fled the South looking for economic and social improvements although after arriving in municipalities such as New York, conditions were highly exploitative and discriminatory for Black and Brown peoples.

Race as a social construct in the U.S. represented a cornerstone in the superstructure and ideological underpinning of the system of capitalism and imperialism. Eventually, after the conclusion of the so-called Spanish-American War at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, Washington solidified its dominance over Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. The outcome of the war would largely determine the focus of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle for more than one hundred and twenty years.

Legalized and de facto segregation even within urban areas in the U.S. served to forge solidarity among peoples of African descent from the U.S., the Caribbean, both English and Spanish speaking, along with other geo-political regions. Schomburg while still in the Caribbean studying in secondary school in St. Thomas, was subjected to racist comments about the lack of contributions of African people to world history. At that point, Schomburg set out to document the antithesis of such a white supremacist viewpoint.

By the 1920s, Schomburg at his home in Brooklyn had accumulated tens of thousands of books, journals, articles, documents, artefacts and other materials which shed tremendous light on the role of African people in world affairs from antiquity to the 20th century. During the 1920s, a period popularly known as the Harlem Renaissance, there was a flowering of interests in African American and Pan-African culture and history. The large concentration of African people from various geo-political regions of the Western Hemisphere provided a vast community for the sharing of these documents.

By 1926, the New York Public Library would purchase the Schomburg Collection through a grant from the Carnegie Foundation which had an interest in building public libraries. Known at the time as the Negro Collection at the 135th Street branch became a permanent part of the Harlem community. Later in the 1970s, the library was renamed The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture while many of the documents were reproduced for distribution in public and university libraries in various states throughout the U.S.

Schomburg through his work in collaboration with contemporary artists and scholars such as Jessie Redmon Fauset, Langston Hughes, Charles S. Johnson, Gwendolyn Bennet, among many others, attracted the attention of Fisk University in Nashville. Charles S. Johnson of Opportunity magazine published by the National Urban League in the early years of the 20th century, went to Fisk in the late 1920s to serve as director of the Social Science division.

After writing to Fisk President Thomas Elsa Jones in 1931 indicating his desire to build an African Diasporic collection within the Historic Black College and University (HBCU) library system, Schomburg would be invited to Nashville to carry out this task. When he arrived at Fisk there were approximately 100 books in its library. Within a matter of months there were well over 4,000 books acquired within the Negro Collection. A reading room was established where a degree of openness for students and scholars was created. This was the same model instituted at the 135th Street Harlem branch.

Having become the curator of the Fisk Negro Collection, Schomburg later returned to New York City to take a similar role in Harlem on 135th street. What distinguished the Schomburg collections in New York and Nashville was its lack of preoccupation with African enslavement through the acquisition of books, pamphlets and documents confirming the centuries-long contributions of African people to world civilization. The collection consisted of English, French, German and Spanish language books and documents reflecting the cultural character of the African Diasporic experience.

Significance of Schomburg in Modern Times

Schomburg died in 1938 many years prior to the rise of the mass Civil Rights, Black Power and Pan-African Movements of the 1950s and 1960s where a profound interest in Black and African Studies arose. Demonstrations in high schools, colleges and universities beginning in the late 1960s and extending through subsequent decades demanded the teaching of the history and social scientific research of the affairs of people of African descent.

These developments among African American and African Caribbean students and scholars, extended to Puerto Rican and other nationally oppressed peoples along with women and gender studies. The demand for Pan-African Studies at its best raised questions related to the purpose of education within a capitalist society. Assumptions fostering notions of Eurocentric dominance within history are still being challenged by a new generation of youth in the U.S.

Today amid an economic decline and public health crisis, educational institutions will become targets of further budget cuts, layoffs and closings. The anti-racist movement will undoubtedly take up these important questions as they seek solutions in the streets, the workplaces and within the schools.

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