Arthur Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938): Embracing the Black Motherhood Experience in Love of Black People

By Asukile, Thabiti | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Arthur Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938): Embracing the Black Motherhood Experience in Love of Black People


Asukile, Thabiti, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Arthur A. Schomburg was a distinguished Black bibliophile and self-trained historian who spent many years of his life collecting and preserving rare Africana books, pamphlets, personal journals, and other important artifacts related to people of African descent. Schomburg could be considered a vindicatitionist historian who collected items that were used in vindicating Africa and people of African descent from the white racist pseudo-scientific scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth. Schomburg dedicated his life to convincing people of African descent of their true historical contributions to humanity in world history, and that their humanity and self-worth were not determined by what white people thought of them. In spite of the many years he spent collecting books and artifacts he was not considered by many of his contemporaries like W.E.B DuBois or Alain Locke as a true intellectual. Schomburg's biographer Elinor Des Verney Sinnette and his contemporary Claude McKay both highlight this dilemma, as a source of frustration for Schomburg during his lifetime. For example, an embarrassing and very bitter experience for Schomburg showing this lack of intellectual respect came when he was offered a job by the New York Public Library (NYPL) to become curator for the collection of books and artifacts he had sold earlier to the library for $10,000 in 1926. (2)

Despite the fact that Schomburg had spent many years collecting many of theses rare items which he had sold to the NYPL, and would had been more than qualified to be the curator of them, some African-American academicians, particularly W.E.B DuBois, tried to stop his appointment. Looking back, one could ask why anyone would try to stop Schomburg from being the curator of his own collection, which he had sold to the NYPL. The main reason is because Schomburg did not possess a college degree. DuBois and other academicians tried to stop the appointment of Schomburg because they felt he was not qualified to do the job without a college degree. Schomburg may not have acquired a college degree nor had the professional training Du Bois was privileged to have in his lifetime, but did this mean that Schomburg could not be considered a scholar or intellectual? (3)

This article seeks to address several questions. What constitutes authority concerning scholarship amongst African-Americans, and is our definition of what an intellectual is defined by the standards of a white-dominated American academy? Do African-American scholars have a history of maligning other African-Americans without PhDs? I believe Schomburg's sheds light on these issues concerning what is an intellectual. A key argument here is that intellectual authority is not always predicated on professional trained in the academy. Along with other people of different ethnicities throughout the world, people of African descent in America have a long tradition of non-academic intellectuals who were committed to the life of the mind, and worked towards the best of humanist traditions. Schomburg's dedication to people of African descent in collecting Africana books and artifacts, and sharing his tremendous knowledge with others, represents the perfect example of the life of the mind and working towards sharing the best of humanist traditions. In this article, I will examine Schomburg's personal development as a Pan-Africanist scholar, his contribution to the Black history movement, and his involvement in local research societies in Harlem and Brooklyn, New York. I will argue that Schomburg was not only an intellectual, but building upon Winston James' suggestion, I will seek to show that Schomburg's life long commitment to people of African descent can be directly traced back to the influence of his Black mother. (4)

Schomburg was born in Puerto Rico on January 24, 1874 to Mary Joseph, a thirty year-old soltera (unmarried) black migrant worker from St. Croix. Carlos Federica Schomburg, his father, was the son of a second-generation German immigrant and a Puerto Rican woman. …

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