Afro-Latin@ Writers and Scholars: Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

[by Meredith Wiggins]

In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15 – October
15), the HBW Blog will be featuring short weekly posts on Afro-Latin@
writers and scholars.  We begin our series with Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.

When Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was a young boy attending school in Puerto Rico, one of his teachers told him and his classmates that people of African descent had no history or accomplishments worth celebrating, no heroes worthy of the name–in short, that there was nothing noteworthy in their past or present.

Schomburg always remembered that teacher’s words. Born in 1874 to a freeborn Black midwife and a mestizo merchant of German ancestry, the Afroborinqueño (or Black Puerto Rican) Schomburg used the outrage he felt that day to fuel a life devoted to honoring the history, culture and accomplishments of Black people, including fellow Afro-Latin@s. 

After studying Negro Literature at St. Thomas College in the Virgin Islands, Schomburg immigrated to New York in 1891, where he began amassing a collection of literature, artwork, slave narratives, and other historical artifacts by people of African descent.  The New York Public Library purchased Schomburg’s collection in 1926, establishing what would eventually become the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Along the way he co-founded the Negro Society for Historical Research, was elected president of the American Negro Academy, and became a celebrated figure in the Harlem Renaissance, authoring an essay titled “The Negro Digs Up His Past” that Alain Locke included in his influential collection The New NegroSchomburg’s essay celebrates the literary, artistic, and cultural achievements of Black people, drawing on his personal collections to provide evidence of the rich history that “blatant Caucasian racialists” denigrate and ignore.

Although much of his later life focused more specifically on African-American history and culture, Schomburg always enthusiastically embraced his Afro-Puerto Rican heritage.  As a longtime member of Las dos Antillas, a group that advocated independence for the islands of Puerto Rico and Cuba, he remained fiercely devoted to the political causes of his place of birth.  Despite this, Richard Knight points out, Schomburg remains better known for his African ancestry than his Latino heritage

Nevertheless, Knight adds, “With his own multicultural heritage, Schomburg was himself a microcosm of the global issues he studied.”  By celebrating the achievements of the people of the African Diaspora, Schomburg helped strike a blow against white racism and preserve the history and culture of Black people across the world.