Passion and Heritage in Schomburg: The Man Who Built a Library

by Carole Boston Weatherford, ill. Eric Velasquez

The Story Warren post linked in the previous post (as well as here), includes recommendations for twenty-one picture books that commemorate events or people relevant to African-American history month. They represent only a fraction of the vibrant, creative, informative works in print, with more appearing all the time.

But as soon as I peeked inside Schomburg I was convinced the book required its own post, foremost for the suitability of its subject matter: African history was Arthur Schomburg’s passion. Multiple award-winning author Carole Weatherford dedicates several pages to individuals who inspired Schomburg. And Velasquez’s lush paintings do justice to the African-related art Schomburg loved and collected.

But personal affinity also riveted me to this book. Arthur was a book collector. I credit my mother-in-law with aiding and abetting, if not outright unleashing, my own bibliomania. If Shirley and Schomburg have met in heaven since her advent there in 2019, they are probably still talking—comparing notes on the importance of primary sources, the joy of a diligent search rewarded, and the essentials of aesthetics. For like Shirley, Schomburg insisted on shelving books in accordance with color and shape.

Shirley disdained those who bought books solely for the elegant effect of gold-stamped leather bindings arrayed in orderly rows. But, assuming a proper appreciation for their contents, she also considered a wall of antiquarian volumes housed in artisanal bindings the final word in tasteful furnishing.

For his part, Schomburg’s love for literature in all its aspects was fueled by his life’s mission. He grew up in Puerto Rico, of Afro-Puerto Rican ancestry. When he was in fifth grade, his teacher dismissed African history as inconsequential. The statement was inexcusable, but perhaps history has that teacher to thank for the passion that overtook young Arturo.

Schomburg commenced to track down, read, and, eventually, to collect every scrap of history related to Africa that he could unearth. At length his collection included manuscripts, letters, pamphlets, rare books, speeches by Frederick Douglass, paintings and sculptures, and an autographed first edition of poems by 18th-century poet Phillis Wheatley. All with an eye to documenting the contributions of Africans to the history and cultures of the world.

Schomburg brought attention to the African ancestry of and influence on such celebrities as Beethoven, Pushkin, and Alexandre Dumas. He also highlighted heroes whom Western writers of history had largely passed over. When at last Schomburg’s acquisitions had outgrown his private space, the Carnegie Corporation bought it in 1926 and donated it to the New York Public Library. The collection constituted the basis for what is now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Schomburg continued to further the cause of African history until his death in 1938. He served as curator for the collection for the last six years of his life, perhaps in part to ensure that no one disregarded his system of arranging books by size and color.

My mother-in-law was passionate not only about the written word but social justice. Had she ever heard about the Schomburg Center she would no doubt have made it a place of pilgrimage and nominated the man for sainthood. The Center ranks high on my own list of things to do when I finally make it to New York. My thanks to Weatherford and Velazquez for bringing Schomburg to my attention, and to Schomburg for his dedication to preserving books and culture.  

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