Spotlight Latino: Arturo Alfonso Schomburg

The modern school without systematic lectures turns out many graduates who lack retention. No sooner has the sound of the word left their teacher’s lips, the subject has been forgotten. . .
  –Arthur Schomburg

It was more than a century ago that a young man arrived in New York on a mission that would bridge two cultures, span several centuries, and provide a lasting structure for understanding and respect among African-, Latino- and European-Americans. If you grew up in New York City it is very likely that you have heard of The Schomberg Center in Harlem. What many may not be aware of is that Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, famously known as “the father of Black history,” is in fact of Puerto Rican descent.

 Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a self-described “Afroborinqueño” (Black Puerto Rican), was born January 24, 1874, of María Josefa and Carlos Féderico Schomburg. His mother was a freeborn Black midwife from St. Croix, and his father was a mestizo merchant whose father was German and whose mother was a Taino Indian. They lived in Santurce, Puerto Rico.

Schomburg’s extraordinary bibliophilia and lifelong quest to research and document the truth about the origins, life, culture and accomplishments of people of African decent, is believed to had been provoked by his fifth grade teacher who told him that “black people have no history, no heroes, no great moments.” He became determined to gather the evidence to prove otherwise. 

 In April, 1891 Schomburg migrated to New York City where he was active in the decolonization movement, and where he continued amassing the materials needed to further untangle the African thread of history in the fabric of the Americas.  He became a fiery debater and documentarian of the accomplishments of Afro-Latinos such as Puerto Rican artist José Campeche, Haitian liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture, and the Afro-Cuban general Antonio Maceo.

 Schomburg’s contribution to social progress was not limited to one culture. Very active in the liberation movements of Puerto Rico and Cuba, he founded Las dos Antillas, a cultural and political group that worked for the islands’ independence. Schomburg spent nearly a decade as a militant activist in the liberation movements of Puerto Rico and Cuba. He was also active in the independista organization Club Borinquen Y Betances.

Schomburg associated closely with such hemispheric liberationists as Jos‚ Marti, Maximo Gomez, and Antonio Maceo, along with his political mentor, Ramon Betances of Puerto Rico. In numerous statements, Schomburg called for Puerto Rico to be neither a colony of Spain nor of the United States, anticipating the issue that would not be resolved until the long-awaited statehood plebiscite of 1994.

With his own multicultural heritage, Schomburg was himself a microcosm of the global issues he studied. Perhaps the most eloquent act of integrating his Latino and African roots was Schomburg’s documentation of a pre-1619 slave landing in Virginia by a Spanish ship in 1526. Schomburg explored the remnants of an African colony in Seville, Spain, demonstrating the ubiquity and accomplishment of Africans at the mutual root of the Afro-Latino dilemma in this hemisphere: colonial Europe.

Still, Schomburg’s Latino roots are less widely recognized than his African heritage, even in some quarters of the Latino community. Richard Perez, Director of the New York based Community Service Society, and himself a Puerto Rican, understands why:

“Because of the influences of slavery and colonialism in Puerto Rico, like many other nations in the Caribbean, a system of color prejudice and hierarchy developed on the island as well. I think one of the most important things is that Schomburg confronted very directly the African diaspora and its influence on the Caribbean.

“Puerto Ricans are a multiracial people — the Taino Indians, the Spanish colonizers and the African slaves — and as a multiracial people it was difficult for us to establish our identity in a country that defines racial identity only as black and white. Schomburg’s research in that direction has made it a little easier, and was a contribution that we have been able to build on.”

Perez says Schomburg is becoming increasingly embraced by the Latino community as educational opportunities grow. Part of that growth was demonstrated at “Arturo Schomburg: From Santurce to Harlem,” a multidisciplinary symposium held in May, 1995, in coordination with the Schomburg Center and Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

Meanwhile, America remains infected by the occasional herpetic eruptions of the oxymoronic concept of “scientific racism”. Lacking Schomburg’s insight, some statisticians, charlatans, politicians, and even college presidents labor mightily under the “dumbbell curve” of tribal insecurity. Rather than seriously studying the inevitable historical consequences of racial, civil, and economic injustice, they would instead attribute social disparity in America to presumed “genetic and hereditary” shortcomings, family pathology and “speciation” among people of color.

Scchomburg’s contribution to African and Latino history is unparalleled, amassing over 10,000 documents on Africa and its Diaspora. In 1926, his personal collection was added to the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints of the Harlem branch of The New York Public Library where he served as curator from 1932 until his death. Today, the Schomburg Center is one of the foremost research centers on Africa and the Diaspora, with more than 10 million items.

We need the historian and philosopher to give us with trenchant pen, the story of our forefathers, and let our soul and body, with phosphorescent light, brighten the chasm that separates us. We should cling to them just as blood is thicker than water.
  –Arthur Schomburg




Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

Johnson, Charles Spurgeon. “Arthur A. Schomburg.” The Speeches of Charles Spurgeon Johnson. Vol. 6. Unpublished. Nashville, Fisk University Library, February 1959.

Logan, Raymond W., and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.

Moss, Alfred A., Jr. The American Negro Academy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

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