Arturo A. Schomburg: His Life and Legacy

By NYPL Staff
October 5, 2020
Bronx Library Center
Studio portrait of Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, age 4
Studio portrait of Schomburg as a young child in Puerto Rico, age 4.

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 5673918

(En Español)

One of the most influential forces behind the creation of The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is the man the research center is named after, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Born in Puerto Rico in 1874 to a Black mother and a father of German descent, young Arturo often wondered about the lack of African history taught in his classrooms.This interest formed the cornerstone of Schomburg’s eventual lifework consisting of research and preservation—work that would lead him to become one of the world’s premier collectors of Black literature, slave narratives, artwork, and diasporic materials.

Schomburg’s devotion to collecting precious materials focusing on the global Black experience was preceded by his allegiance to Puerto Rican and Cuban independence groups. But once the Spanish American War ended and the Cuban Revolution Party was dissolved, Schomburg refocused his efforts on bolstering Black identity and preserving its culture in New York City.

Artist Aaron Douglas and Arturo Schomburg in front of Douglas' painting

Artist Aaron Douglas (left) and Schomburg in front of Douglas's painting "Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers," 1934. NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 1820330 

During the 1920s and '30s, Schomburg traveled to Europe, Latin America, and across the United States collecting new materials that bolstered his already voluminous collection. In 1926 the Carnegie Corporation funded The New York Public Library’s purchase of Schomburg’s private collection for $10,000. This would mark the beginning of the 135th Street branch’s transformation into the Schomburg Center.

Schomburg’s curation work was so heralded that in 1929, Fisk University President Charles S. Johnson invited him to curate Fisk’s library. By assisting in the architectural design of the library and focusing on providing equitable experiences for researchers, including the building of a reading room and browsing space, Schomburg helped cement Fisk’s standing as one of the leading institutions on Black research and studies. By the time Schomburg ended his tenure at Fisk, the library’s collection had expanded to 4,600 books from a mere 106 items. 

In collaboration with Rhonda Evans, Assistant Chief Librarian of the Schomburg Center's Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, the Bronx Library Center has created a presentation highlighting Arturo Schomburg’s life and legacy. We hope that you enjoy learning more about Schomburg and his commitment to uplifting and preserving Black history and culture.

Please visit our presentation about Schomburg's life and contributions below or on Instagram here.