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Scholar, Historian, Activist and Collector

Arturo Alfonzo Schomburg

Lorena Ramirez

During January Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is celebrated in the United States. It’s a time set aside to commemorate his life, and most importantly, to remember his contributions to the African-American Civil Rights Movement (1960s). King, in a civil disobedient manner, fought hard to demonstrate that the rights of African-Americans mattered, just as much as those of white people.

One of the individuals who labored, enhancing the commentary and activism upon which Dr. King pursued his life’s mission was Arturo A. Schomburg (1874-1938), Father of Black History. While Schomburg’s endeavors took place more than 120 years ago, they were instrumental and created a legacy for the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement.

BEFORE Martin Luther King …Arturo A. Schomburg

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, January 24, 1874, Schomburg’s mother was a black woman originally from St. Croix, and his father was a Puerto Rican of German heritage. He attended San Juan’s Instituto Popular, where he learned commercial printing, and St. Thomas College in the Virgin Islands, where he studied Negro Literature.

martina-main_14Schomburg was a self-proclaimed Afro-Borinqueño (black Puerto Rican) whose fervent pursuit of African history was attributed to a teacher who told him, “Negroes have no history, no heroes, or great moments.” That auspicious moment set Schomburg on a path to invalidate those comments. He deliberately dedicated his life to the black liberation movement, collecting, documents and artifacts as well as speaking about the absent yet rich history of the African Diaspora.

From Puerto Rico to New York

In 1891 Schomburg migrated to New York City, specifically Harlem, where he became involved in the Harlem Renaissance, the independence movements for Cuba and Puerto Rica. He was a member of the Revolutionary Committee of Puerto Rico, a group of Cubans and Puerto Ricans, who sought independence from Spain. He was secretary of Las Dos Antillas, an organization that worked for the independence of both Cuba and Puerto Rico. A year later he became a Mason with El Sol de Cuba #38, a Spanish-speaking lodge comprised of Cuban and Puerto Rican immigrants and there are conflicting dates regarding when he become the Master of El Sol de Cuba #38 (1911/1918/1922). Disillusion by the lack of progress towards and independent Cuba and Puerto Rico, Schomburg changed the Masonic group’s name to Prince Hall Lodge, honoring the first US black freemason (Prince Hall).

Puerto Rico 1886 MapSchomburg took on a variety of jobs, while living in New York. In 1896 he began teaching Spanish (1901 to 1906) and continued his interest in studying the role blacks played in Spanish history; he also served as a messenger and clerk for Pryor, Mellis and Harris (law firm) and in 1906 he worked for the Bankers Trust Company.

Family

He married Elizabeth Hatcher of Staunton, Virginia, June 30, 1895, with whom he had three sons, Maximo Gomez, Arthur Alfonso Jr. and Kingsley Guarionex. Hatcher died in 1900 and Schomburg married Elizabeth Morrow Taylor of Williamsburg, North Carolina, Mar. 17, 1902, with whom he had two children, Reginald Stanton and Nathaniel Jose Schomburg.

Scholar, Historian and Activist

During 1904 Schomburg’s first known article, ‘Is Hayti Decadent?’ was published in The Unique Advertiser. In 1912 he co-edited (Daniel A. Payne Murray) “Encyclopedia of the Colored Race. A year later, 1913, speaking to a group of black educators at Cheyney University, Schomburg promoted the inclusion of black history throughout the U.S.’s educational system. He was a contributing writer for Crisis Magazine (official publication of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research with John Edward Bruce and was president of the American Negro Academy.

Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths Brazil Host Cities
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