Getting to Know the History of New York’s Schomburg Center

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg among Masons in April, 1922. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture — originally named The Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints — opened in 1925 in Harlem, and thanks to the initial contributions in 1926 of the man for whom it was named, it flourished. Without any prior knowledge of the history, upon hearing his last name, you might make assumptions about his identity. Let’s set that record straight.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico. His mother was Black and his father was a Puerto Rican of German descent. Early on, he began collecting materials — books, documents, artifacts — to show African American and African contributions and achievements across the diaspora. His contribution exceeded 10,000 and, today, building upon his initial contribution, the collection at the library now stands at over 11 million pieces.

Schomburg, whose intellectual thoughts were integral to the Harlem Renaissance. famously provided one possible solution to racism and explained his passion for history with this quote: “history must restore what slavery took away.”

Today, the center bearing Schomburg’s name is a part of the New York Public Library system and not only considered a leading research center for the African Diaspora but also includes exhibits, performances, education programs, and fellowships. Even in the midst of a pandemic, it hosts livestream events, podcasts, online exhibitions, and oral histories such as Black New Yorkers, that explore a 400-year span of history. The library has a Black Liberation Reading List of recommended books from Toni Morrison’s to Claudia Rankine’s … and that’s just the adult list (I got work to do!). There’s also one for teens and kids.

Schomburg wasn’t solely a collector; he was a writer, activist, and scholar. He identified as Afro Latin American because that was who he is, and how he moved through the world. I, too, move through this world as Black and Puerto Rican, and I’m a writer. Like Schomburg, with my writing and collections of narratives, I can do my part to challenge this system that still actively seeks our harm and oppression.

Prior to starting this research, I was unaware that the library was created by someone who identified as Black and Puerto Rican, a mixed person with my exact heritage. But now I know. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and its founder continue to remind us that despite repeated attempts at erasing our talents, our contributions to culture, music, the arts and sciences, we have and continue to be invaluable.

Multi-ethnic creative non-binary. Spouts nonsense that occasionally makes sense. she/her/they/them

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Momentum is a blog that captures and reflects the moment we find ourselves in, one where rampant anti-Black racism is leading to violence, trauma, protest, reflection, sorrow, and more. Momentum doesn’t look away when the news cycle shifts.

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