(San Juan, Puerto Rico 1891 - New York, New York, United States 1938)
Arthur/Arturo Schomburg was a prominent lay-historian, book collector, and bibliophile of the Harlem Renaissance and Afro-diasporic history. Schomburg was born in Puerto Rico in 1874 to a Puerto Rican father (described by Schomburg himself as a 'mestizo'), and Afro-Caribbean mother from St. Croix. He would spend his early life in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (with his mother's family). Biographers indicate that Schomburg may have worked briefly as an apprentice printer in San Juan. Schomburg arrived in New York city in 1891 where he would dedicate his life to movements of liberation. His early political work in the United States surrounded liberation movements in Puerto Rico and Cuba in the years leading up to the Spanish-American War (1898-1900). After Cuba was liberated and Puerto Rico annexed as a U.S. territory, Schomburg shifted emphasis. Today Schomburg is best known for his contributions to Black life and literature in the U.S. context, but as his essays and Bibliographical Checklist show, he remained interested in Afro-Latino writers and social and political questions throughout his life (see, for instance, his 1910 essay on the Cuban poet Placido).
Schomburg spoke Spanish and English. His contemporaries (DuBois, McKay and others) note that he spoke English with a noticeable accent and his writing in English sometimes required revision because of his multilingualism. There is little to no formal documentation of Schomburg’s education, a fact which would inhibit him in some ways throughout his career, nonetheless the Harlem community conferred upon him the title of "Dr.Schomburg." In New York City, Schomburg worked at Bankers Trust Company for twenty five years, starting out as a clerk and rising to a mid-level management position. After facing health issues, he retired (in 1929), offering him more time to labor in academic/scholarly spaces. He would work at Fisk University in 1930-1931, helping the university to develop its collection of Africana texts. Schomburg spent the last few years of his life as the overseer of his own collection at the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library, now part of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In 1926, Schomburg sold his collection -- thousands of volumes -- to the New York Public Library, for $10,000. That collection became the core of what is today the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Schomburg as Collector
Schomburg evidenced his commitment to racial uplift in his expansive cataloging and collection of books, art, images, and other artifacts which documented Black life and intellectual achievement. Fervent in his work, Schomburg corresponded with book collectors across the globe to track down texts written by Black authors or had any contents which pertained to Black life. Worth noting, Schomburg was also interested in collecting pro-slavery texts, seeing them as critical to preserving Black history. As a collector who had only some opportunity to travel, Schomburg was known to send his friends on book collecting missions. Schomburg’s devotion to collecting was motivated by a conviction that Black people had a long intellectual history that had been erased and obscured. This history bolstered his contemporary artists and refuted the white supremacist arguments for the subjugation of Black people. In perhaps his most famous essay, “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” Schomburg makes the case for his work as collector reminding readers of how the archives can reveal a long history of Black intellectualism.
Amid his work as a book collector, Schomburg served within and pioneered various organizations. He was a dedicated Freemason eventually serving as the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of New York’s Grand Secretary. He helped establish the Negro Society for Historical Research. Moreover, he would participate in the American Negro Academy, serving as president in the organization’s final years. Across Schomburg’s affiliations his devotion to afro-diasporic intellectualism and archives was evident. In addition to his work in the Harlem Renaissance, Schomburg collected transnational works spanning from the Early Modern period to his contemporaries. After selling his collection to the NYPL in 1926, Schomburg was able to travel for the first time to Europe; his essays on Juan Latino and Juan de Pareja came out of those travels.
Schomburg's Bibliographical Checklist of African American Poetry
We have created a digital edition of Schomburg's Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry (1916), a pamphlet Schomburg published on the encouragement of publisher C.E. Heartman. While Schomburg would later express ambivalence about the Checklist, it remains an important and valuable piece of scholarship. The Checklist lists more than 200 books of poetry by Black writers published in North America and the Caribbean. Besides providing an extensive bibliographiy of the publications of African American figures like Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar, Schomburg also lists a number of Hispanophone and Francophone writers; WorldCat suggests that many of those writers in particular remain extremely obscure.
We have used Schomburg's Checklist as well as Dorothy Porter's 1945 extension of the Checklist as guides that have helped us find authors whose works may be worth digitizing and including in our Full Text Collections.
What was Schomburg’s first name?
Born Arturo, Schomburg by the early 20th Century had begun to sign his name in a variety of ways including "Arthur" – an anglicized version of "Arturo" – as well as opting to use just initials, publishing a few early essays as "A.A. Schomburg." Schomburg’s multitude of names and signatures, including a pen name "Guarionex" – likely inspired by the Taino native chief – reveals a negotiation within Schomburg of his various racial and ethnic identities (as an Afro-Puerto Rican, an Afro-Caribbean, and a Black immigrant to the U.S.). Schomburg’s correspondence suggests he did not fully abandon "Arturo" as his name, perhaps as a result of assimilation to life in the United States. Rather, the use of either appears to have been situational -- he at times shifted his signature depending on whether he was corresponding with Anglophones or Hispanophones.
Sinnette, Elinor Des Verney. Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, Black Bibliophile & Collector: a Biography. New York Public Library, 1989.
Valdés, Vanessa Kimberly. Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. State University of New York Press, 2017.