Arturo (Arthur) Alfonso Schomburg
Bibliophile, Historian, Writer, Collector, Curator
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born in Puerto Rico on January 24, 1874. He began his education in a primary school in San Juan, where he studied reading, penmanship, sacred history, church history, arithmetic, Spanish grammar, history, agriculture and commerce. Arturo’s fifth-grade teacher is said to have told him that “Black people have no history, no heroes, no great moments.” Because of this and his participation in a history club, Schomburg developed a thirst for knowledge about people of African descent and began his lifelong quest studying the history and collecting the books and artifacts that made up the core of his unique and extensive library.
He came to New York in April 1891 and lived on the Lower East Side. He was involved in the revolutionary movements of the immigrant Cubans and Puerto Ricans living in that area, regularly attending meetings and working at odd jobs while attending night school at Manhattan Central High School. Schomburg became a Mason and met bibliophile and journalist John Edward Bruce. “Bruce Grit” introduced Schomburg to the African-American intellectual community and encouraged him to write about African world history and continue to increase his knowledge.
Arturo Schomburg would look everywhere for books by and about African people. He also collected letters, manuscripts, prints, playbills and paintings. He was especially proud of his collection of Benjamin Banneker’s Almanacs. In fact, his library contained many rare and unusual items from all over the world. The history of the Caribbean and Latin America and the lives of heroic people in that region was also an area of special interest to Schomburg. And he actively sought any material relative to that subject.
Schomburg’s collection became the cornerstone of The New York Public Library’s Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints. He frequently loaned objects from his personal library to the 135th Street Branch of The New York Public Library, which was a center of intellectual and cultural activity in Harlem. In 1926 his collection of 10,000 items was purchased by the Library with the assistance of the Carnegie Corporation. He was later invited to be the curator of the new division which included his collections. He became involved in the social and literary movement that started in Harlem, known as the “Harlem Renaissance.” which spread to African-American communities throughout the country. Schomburg fully shared his knowledge of the history of peoples of African descent with the young scholars and writers of the New Negro movement. One of his primary motivations was to combat racial prejudice by providing proof of the extraordinary contributions of peoples of African descent to world history. Schomburg wrote, “I depart now on a mission of love to recapture my lost heritage.”