Harlem On My Mind: Arturo Schomburg
Trymaine Lee: There's something about the way an old book feels in my hands, the way the rough-hewn binding and browning pages somehow carry the traces of every person who's ever touched it before me. The same is true of photographs, records, old tools. I hear their voices, I feel their triumphs and their tragedies.
I'm transported to a different time and place. Yet mostly I feel connected. One of my favorite pieces of art, Jacob Lawrence's Schomburg Library connects me in the very same way. I'm pulled into a world buzzing with a deep sense of community, curiosity, and aspiration. That's the artwork that started this journey that we're calling Harlem On My Mind.
The inspiration for that Lawrence print, Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is a place where our past still lives and breathes. And to understand this place, and its role in shaping Black identity, you have to understand the unlikely story of how it came to be, and the story of the man whose name is on the building. It all began in the late 19th century, in a small town on the island of Puerto Rico, with words from a white teacher to a little Black boy named Arturo Schomburg.
Shola Lynch: The story that I always think of that still gives me goosebumps to this day, you know, he was an Afro-Puerto Rican. And he asked his school teacher when he was in grade school about Black history.
Lee: That's Shola Lynch, a curator at the Schomburg.
Lynch: As the story goes, his teacher said none existed. Can you imagine being a grade school kid and being told that you didn't have any history that was worth knowing? No history?
Lee: Fast forward a couple of decades and Arturo Schomburg has amassed a collection of items that do in fact document our history. And he writes an essay titled The Negro Digs Up His Past. It reads, quote, "The American Negro must rebuild his past in order to make his future. History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generation must repair and offset."
Lynch: And in that essay, he describes this collection, and he names these 10,000 items "vindicating evidences".
Lee: Vindicating evidences, records of our past and our pride.
Lynch: And when I read that, he doesn't talk about his school teacher, but he's in conversation with what that school teacher told him. He's in conversation with all those people that denied his legacy and history. And rather than be defeated about it, he was just gonna crop the mic 10,000 times with the evidence. (LAUGH) Right? That was his adult way of dealing.
Lee: Those 10,000 vindicating evidences eventually became the Schomburg Center, which now houses more than 11 million items. Arturo Schomburg was its first researcher, first curator, and the original recordkeeper of the depth and breadth of Blackness around the world.
I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. We're continuing our Black History Month series Harlem On My Mind, following the interconnected lives of four figures from Harlem, and how they shaped a Black identity for themselves and for future generations. Today, part two, Arturo Schomburg. It's the story of his search for Black history, for Black heroes, and how eventually he became one himself.
Dr. Vanessa valdés: I am born and raised in the Bronx, New York, had never known of him prior to being 18 years old, which says a lot.
Lee: Dr. Vanessa Valdés is the director of the Black Studies Program at the City College of New York, just a few blocks from the Schomburg Center. She spent much of her career frequenting the library that bears his name, which she was first introduced to during a U.S. Latino literature class in college.
Valdés: The professor was talking about the Schomburg Center, was talking about this place, this Black repository-- in Harlem, and that, you know, it was named after a Puerto Rican man named Schomburg. And none of those things seemed to fit (LAUGHTER) for me. There was just layers.
Lee: She didn't quite get how this German name would be attached to a Black center, or why she had never heard about this man who shared her background as a Black Puerto Rican.
Valdés: Wait a second, these are my peoples. What do you mean? Like, we have a cannon of literature that I don't get to look at until I'm in college. What do you mean there is somebody who comes from, who is born in the islands of my mother's birth who took the time to collect anything and everything that had to do with Blackness around the world?
Lee: Vanessa has spent years studying Schomburg and everything he stood for, diaspora, identity, and the beautiful, complex range of our Blackness. And in 2017, she published Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. Here's his story.
Valdés: So he is born in 1874 in San Mateo de Cangrejos, Puerto Rico. It is outside of San Juan, or part of San Juan, but it was a free Black community that was mostly populated by folks who were escaping slavery from the surrounding islands.
Lee: His mother had come to Puerto Rico from the Danish West Indies.
Valdés: And so he's born there to a free Black woman named Maria Josefa and to a man of German heritage whose family had been in Puerto Rico for 50 years by that point named Carlos Schomburg.
Lee: Vanessa told me that scholars actually don't know much about Arturo Schomburg's time in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. But we do know that he spent time traveling among the various islands, seeing Blackness in various contexts. There's that key story, the one we heard about earlier, that becomes central to the mythology surrounding this man.
Valdés: When he was in school he wanted to write about his heroes, and apparently a teacher said, "Well, your people don't have heroes." Now, this is a very interesting designation, right? Because he's in a Puerto Rican classroom with Puerto Ricans, and yet that, like, "No, yours." You know, that, like, racial designation.
Lee: He was Black in that space, right? He was Black in that--
Valdés: As Black folks are.
Lee: Right. (LAUGH)
Lee: And being Black in that space, as in most spaces, meant that to some people he didn't belong. At 17, Arturo Schomburg left Puerto Rico and came to New York.
Valdés: He lands in 1891. 1891 New York City has some African American communities, but you know, the Great Migration hasn't happened yet, right?
Lee: It's still early, yeah.
Valdés: What it also has is Cuban populations, because New York actually had tobacco factories. So you had folks here who were working in those factories. You also had folks who were exiled from Cuba and Puerto Rico due to their activities, their revolutionary activities, because they were fighting for Puerto Rican and Cuban independence. Working class Black Puerto Rican, Black Cuban communities. He comes into that space.
Lee: Not long after arriving in New York, Arturo married and started a family. He found a job as a mail clerk in a bank, but on the side he started collecting.
Valdés: They would say that he would go on his breaks, he would just go to the bookshop and, you know, he would find something and it was, you know, $0.25, $0.50. and so he would just buy it.
Lee: He's collecting, and collecting, and collecting.
Valdés: Anything to do with Black folks and with the history of enslavement and a history of freedom.
Lee: He got involved in the New York social scene too. Arturo joined the Prince Hall Lodge, an all Black group of Freemasons, and connected with Masons not just in New York, but throughout the Caribbean.
Valdés: So he is communicating with brothers, right, with brother Masons in all of these countries.
Lee: Through this correspondence, Arturo saw that the Black struggle for liberation was global. Remember, the transatlantic slave trade hadn't just brought enslaved Africans to the United States of America, it brought them to the Americas as a whole.
Valdés: He was for Black freedom, period. So there is an awareness of what is happening in the rest of the hemisphere, and a recognition that the denial of Black involvement in national governments, in national citizenry across the hemisphere is not something that is unique to the United States.
Lee: This expanded sense of Blackness for Arturo collided with the energy of the Harlem Renaissance and the New Negro Movement, as a younger generation of artists and thinkers was redefining what it meant to be Black and free. Arturo developed a reputation as an intellectual, giving talks on Black history, writing for The Crisis, which is the magazine of the NAACP, and he joined organizations like the Negro Society for Historical Research.
Valdés: He knows Carter Woodson in D.C., he's communicating with him.
Lee: For those who don't know, Carter G. Woodson is the great, great grandaddy of African American history. This is the man behind Negro History Week, which eventually became Black History Month. For Arturo Schomburg to be running in Woodson's crowd would've been a big deal.
Valdés: He was also friends with Marcus Garvey. Like, all these people, all these men, right, are working together. They're in the same circles.
Lee: And as Arturo continued to join these elite Black circles, he never chose between his Blackness or his Puerto Ricanness. He sometimes referred to himself as an Afroborinqueño, an Afro-Puerto Rican.
Valdés: And he's, like, translating the documents that had been originally written in Spanish, he starts translating them into English. And that's what Mr. Schomburg brought also, the history of Black Spanish-speaking populations.
Lee: Did he have any rivals or any criticism lodged against him from contemporaries?
Valdés: I mean, I think that there were tensions because while there was a consciousness on his part of his lack of formal education, there were things that he was denied because he didn't have, you know, a college degree and a post-graduate degree. And he was aware of that.
Lee: Now, he may not have had a big college degree, but he did have a vast collection of books and knowledge on Black history and culture from across the world.
Valdés: And it wasn't just books, it was papers, it was posters, it's ephemera, it's art, it's prints, it's everything related to the Black experience. Anything that he could find.
Lee: And where did he keep this stuff? I mean, before there was the center, where? (LAUGH)
Valdés: There was his house. (LAUGHTER)
Lee: His house.
Valdés: That was it. There is a story, you know, Zora Neale Hurston, I believe in one of her letters, she talks about going out to see Mr. Schomburg, right? She was with Langston Hughes. They would go out to his house.
Lee: I'm trying to imagine Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston saying, "Let's go check out Mr. Schomburg. Let's see what's goin' on (LAUGH) over at the crib." And then those two would show up.
Valdés: Right. They were just, you know, young writers, trying to figure stuff out. (LAUGH)
Lee: That's amazing.
Lee: So how did Mr. Schomburg's vast collection become the Schomburg Center?
Valdés: In the mid-1920s he was being approached about his collection, because it had gotten to a point where I've read that there were books, like, on the staircase. You know, it was everywhere. You know, the story is that his wife, at the time, pretty much said, "No, you have to do this. Like, this has to get out of the house."
Lee: Look, as an amateur collector myself, I totally get it. My wife has gotten on me more than a few times about my collection just spilling into hallways and closets, just all over the place. After the break, Arturo Schomburg's collection gets a home of its own, and we hear from his family. Stick with us.
Lee: We're back with the story of Arturo Schomburg. Before the break, Arturo's collection had grown to a point where it could no longer be contained inside the walls of his home. The New York Public Library had recently started a division of Negro literature, history, and prints at their 135th Street Branch, in order to meet the needs of Harlem's growing Black population.
So in 1926, they offered to buy Arturo's personal collection. At the time it included more than 5,000 books, 3,000 manuscripts, and several thousand etchings, paintings, and pamphlets. How much did he actually sell the collection for? How much was it?
Valdés: At the time it was $10,000.
Lee: Which would've been?
Valdés: In 1926 terms, which we can look up. (LAUGH)
Lee: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I'm gonna have to look it up.
Valdés: But even then, I mean, it was a good number. But there were still people who said that that was undervalued.
Lee: So just according to this, you know, this little website, $10,000 in 1926 is equivalent in purchasing power to about $147,000 today.
Lee: Wow. After the sale, Arturo continued to travel and to collect. And six years later he returned to Harlem to curate the collection he started. He did so, adding to it, until 1938 when he died at the age of 64 following complications from surgery.
After his death, the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library renamed its division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints the Schomburg Collection. And in 1972, the entire branch became the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, as we know it today.
If you've never been, it's a five story building, and it stretches from 135th Street to 136th Street on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. It's a bustling public institution, with lectures, book events, and film screenings. And Langston Hughes, some of his ashes are actually interred in the floor of the Schomburg's lobby, beneath a round, brass cosmogram inscribed with verses from his poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
Lynch: So if I'm in the mood to hear a speech by Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, we can put on an LP, The Last Message, right?
Malcolm X: That's when he said he's gonna put out a civil rights bill. And when he mentioned civil rights bill and the Southern crackers started talking about they were gonna boycott it or filibuster it, then the Negros start talking about what, we're gonna march on Washington, march on the Senate, march on the White House.
Lee: For Shola Lynch, the curator that we heard from at the beginning of the show, working at the Schomburg is pretty incredible. She said it's impossible for her to pick her favorite piece from the center's collection. She just can't do it.
Lynch: If I'm in the mood to listen to a radio show by a woman named Etta Moten Barnett in the '40s and '50s, I can put that on. If I'm in the mood to read a letter in the Manuscripts Division that James Baldwin wrote, right, I'm privileged enough to have his voice in my ear. If I'm in the mood to listen to Saxophone Colossus and Sonny Rollins--
Lee: All right, you're just rubbing it in now, you're just rubbing it in now--
Lynch: Exactly, exactly, exactly.
Lee: --we're jealous already, all right? (LAUGHTER) Seriously, y'all, I'm not even playing. I don't get jealous very easily, but I'm actually jealous that she gets to work in that place.
Lynch: One of my favorite pictures, though, is Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou dancing on top of the cosmogram with Langston Hughes's ashes below. And that's the kind of legacy relay race that we're talking about culturally, that is a moment where you realize where you are and gives you chills. And it all stands on Arturo Schomburg's mission.
Lee: That mission? Inform the work of luminaries like Jacob Lawrence, the American painter who inspired this series, Harlem On My Mind, and Abram Hill, the Black playwright who Lawrence dedicated that print to. Here's Jacob Lawrence in a recording from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Jacob Lawrence: He collected books and materials pertaining to and about Black people throughout the world. And it's a wonderful source of information, a wonderful source to me. I went there and I read. I took notes. And from out of that developed the series.
Lee: That series was The Migration Series, Lawrence's most ambitious and most popular work. Now, we don't know the exact nature of the relationship between Lawrence and Schomburg. Schomburg was much older, after all. But Lawrence did complete a painting in 1975 called The Curator.
Now, it's not very well known. Vanessa Valdés, the professor we spoke to earlier, is actually the one who told us all about it. She found it in an old catalog from the '80s. It's an image of a man with glasses and a thick mustache, painted in Lawrence's signature style.
He's sitting in the Schomburg Library, hunched over, reading a book. In a letter from Jacob Lawrence to the head of the Schomburg at the time, the artist writes, quote, "The painting is not an exact portrait painting of Arthur Schomburg.
"However, many years ago, I spent much of my time at the Schomburg Center, and the library did inspire me to paint this picture." It was pretty cool to find that connection. And part of Shola's work is to keep us connected, to collect work that carries Arturo Schomburg's legacy forward, to tell us who we are and where we've been as Black people. The center continues to attract big names like Isabel Wilkerson, Henry Louis Gates, Amber Ruffin, and Roxane Gay.
Lynch: That ability to have the space intellectually and physically, that freedom, is an important part of creating and re-imagining what it can be to be Black in America. I mean, and that seems to be the thing that every generation, we all do it, right? We look to the past, what's been done, but what hasn't been done, and we try and re-imagine our way and create culture, right? Now the Schomburg Center began with Arturo Schomburg's 10,000 item collection, we're 11 million and counting items.
Lynch: Oh, no, no, no, 11 million vindicating evidences. (LAUGHTER)
Lee: Get it right. It's amazing to think about, but there is an irony to this impressive record he created. There's still so much that is unknown about Arturo Schomburg, the man. For one, what he sounded like.
Lynch: We have no known audio. I would love, I would love to know what his voice sounded like. Would he say, "I am Arturo Schomburg?" Or would he say, (LAUGHTER) you know, like, wouldn't that be amazing?
Lee: Exactly, right, right.
Lynch: So with this piece, I hope there's a call out to check the home collections to see whether we can unearth some audio of Arturo Schomburg.
Lee: All right, so if any listeners have got a lead on that missing audio, please, seriously, let us know. The center does have a silent black and white video clip of Arturo Schomburg. It's only 26 seconds long, and Shola gets really excited talking about it.
Lynch: We have this little clip of film of him where he is Arturo Schomburg at the curator's desk, surrounded by the patrons.
Lee: I asked Shola if she could play the clip for me and describe it, since, again, there's no sound.
Lynch: He's behind his desk. He looks up. You can imagine the director saying, "Action." He's surrounded by patrons who are studying, and in comes Catherine Latimer, the first Black librarian hired by the New York Public Library. And they walk over to look at some of the art in the case. She curtsies just a bit and the clip ends. And it's a few seconds of seeing Arturo Schomburg in action, surrounded by everything that he collected and loved.
Lee: And just seeing this moment, these young brothers here with their suits on, they're all studious. You have the OG historian behind the desk. This is beautiful.
Lee: This is amazing.
Lynch: Yeah. And the books are there, and they're accessible. The librarian is there and she's accessible. We see the art, the photographs in the back.
Lee: That video was shot in the Schomburg's original reading room, about a decade after Mr. Schomburg sold his collection.
Lynch: The way that I see him is he is any one of us, in a sense. He's not the guy with the PhD, he's not the guy who somebody tapped on the shoulder and said, "You're gonna be the next genius, this is what I see in your future." He is an Afro-Puerto Rican boy who got troubled by a teacher and carried that around, and found a way, through his daily life as a mail clerk, to solve that problem. He is what is best about any one of us in an ordinary way, right? And it's through being true to who he was that he becomes extraordinary.
Lee: Today, anyone can tap into the story of the Black diaspora at the Schomburg Center. But even those closest to Arturo Schomburg's lineage are still working to better understand his story.
Dean Schomburg: Arturo Schomburg was my grandfather. I am the son of his seventh son.
Lee: That's Dean Schomburg. He's 82 years old. He's a retired radio broadcaster and he lives part time in Harlem. Did you ever get the chance to meet your grandfather?
Schomburg: I did not. Arturo Schomburg died June 11th of 1938. I was born six months later, January of 1939. So our paths never crossed, but I like to think he knew I was coming.
Lee: Dean has gotten to know a little bit about his grandfather through family members, the good stuff and the more complicated.
Schomburg: There was no real fatherly interactions between the sons, and certainly not with me, because I-- I wasn't even born then. But I began to understand, he was a father, but he wasn't a dad. Because he had this passion, this overwhelming passion to do what he did, which is to make sure that people knew what it was that we as people of color had contributed to civil society. And so he sacrificed his, that's the way I see it, he sacrificed his family life in pursuit of this passion of his, to collect and let people know what we as people were all about.
Lee: It took Dean time to fully understand his grandfather's legacy.
Schomburg: The time that I really think that I was aware of the Schomburg and what that name meant, and what it could mean to me, I was probably late teens.
Lee: When that light bulb went off, was it pride? What was going on in you when you realized, like, "My grandfather is the Arturo Schomburg"?
Schomburg: It was pride most of all, great, great joy to me, to understand that. And it was, I wouldn't say it's burdensome, but I did have, I felt compelled to honor that, what was a legacy to me. So yeah, the emotions mostly was pride, and then curiosity, and then I got to work. I got to do some work. And so when I enrolled in Fordham University in 1974, they called it African and African American studies. It was like, Africana studies. And there was a goal post for me to learn about Black history.
Lee: Many people don't realize, or don't know, that you know, Schomburg was a Black Puerto Rican, right? He came from the island. Is there any connection now that y'all have to the island?
Schomburg: Yeah, I'm aware of the Puerto Ricanness that I have in me too. And they've asked me at the University of Puerto Rico in San Piedro, in San Juan, they've asked me a couple of times back for the last four or five years to come down every January to address their, they have a little seminar they do about Arturo Schomburg. In San Juan there's a street there named after him. So it's in our DNA.
Lee: Professor Vanessa Valdés told me she can actually see how Arturo Schomburg's legacy lifts up and reaffirms her students each year, with every new class of young people.
Valdés: Many of my students were of African descent, coming from Spanish-speaking countries, Dominicans, and Mexicans, and Guatemalans, and Ecuadorians. And then when I bring them, or when I could bring them to the Schomburg Center, because we're about a 15 minute walk away from the center itself.
And I, you know, ask the curators to pull up photographs and prints and, you know, documents from Peru and Brazil and, you know, Mexico. They all of a sudden see themselves in a different way, and so I'm very much in touch with my 19-year-old self, upon hearing about this man and what he did.
Lee: Visiting the Schomburg Center, Vanessa's students are able to see the ways that their people helped shape the countries that they come from. They see themselves and their Blackness as part of our world's history.
Valdés: The Schomburg Center, it just, it unlocks something in all of us.
Lee: I talked a little bit about kind of the scenes for this journey we've been on, right? And it began with this Jacob Lawrence print, Schomburg Library. And looking at it, the one thing I love, and this is one of my prized possessions, it's the vibrance. There's this beautiful chaos in it that feels like the Schomburg, right?
Lee: It's like, the books are turned over, but there's people just, like, devouring these books. And you look at some of the covers of the books, and they're clearly Black silhouettes.
Lee: And when you look at this, what do you see?
Valdés: I saw exactly that. I saw, (LAUGH) that's the research and reference section, right there, right? Like, it's just, it's such a beautiful representation, an accurate representation in its abstraction of what happens in that space every single day.
Lee: You got this guy in the center with all the books, and we know that guy, who comes. (LAUGH) You got too many books, man, just get two.
Lee: You got your table, you're just droppin' books, you know--
Valdés: But also I love, I do love that there is an energy to the piece it self, right? Like, there is, like, you can feel it.
Lee: Part of what I love about this colorful piece is that it reminds me, through it all, that there is happiness and joy and piece in so many ordinary Black spaces.
Valdés: There's comfort in knowing and remembering that we are whole, right? And that's who we are, and that's how we exist, in the face of a culture that not only wants to deny us and maim us and say we're not good enough or whatever, and like, critique our hair and our style and everything about us.
No, we have to be in spaces that reaffirm us, right? You know, the Schomburg Center, at one point, their logo was "Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where every month is Black History Month." Like, this don't stop, you know, February 28th, right?
Lynch: Like, our Blackness does not stop. And so to be in a space that celebrates that, that nurtures it, that affirms it, right, like, that, it's a tremendous, tremendous gift to all of us. And God bless Jacob Lawrence for capturing that. Because I saw that print and was like, "That's it. That's it right there." (LAUGH)
Lee: Jacob Lawrence and Arturo Schomburg, these giants of Black history, American history really, continue to remind us of how powerful we are, and how so much of that strength comes from our connections to one another. In many ways, Arturo Schomburg was at the very center of the Harlem Renaissance, the godfather of the movement.
At one point Shola told me that there is no Harlem Renaissance without Arturo Schomburg. For weeks now, the Into America team has been going back and forth with the curators at the Schomburg to try to answer some of our questions. And we uncovered a photograph.
It's a group of young, Black men and women on a New York City rooftop. Langston Hughes is there with a big smile. And on the front row, doubled over in laughter, is a woman named Jessie Fauset. Now, while going through some of Schomburg's personal papers, we found something pretty interesting.
It's a letter dated March 26th, 1924, written on letterhead from The Crisis magazine, addressed to Mr. A. Schomburg, and signed, "Sincerely yours, Jessie Fauset." Jessie Redmon Fauset was a writer, and she's one of those people who played such a pivotal role in our culture, but whose name and story are often lost to history. So we decided, let's tell her story.
Next week we continue our series, Harlem On My Mind, with Jessie Fauset, who Langston Hughes once called a midwife of the Harlem Renaissance. If you missed the first episode in our series, about Jacob Lawrence, you can find it in our feed, wherever you listen to podcasts.
And look, (LAUGH) we were serious earlier, if you've got any audio or information on Arturo Schomburg or any other information about the figures in our series this month, you can tweet me @trymainelee. That's @trymainelee, my full name. Or write to us, IntoAmerica@nbcuni.com. That's NBC and the letters UNI, so IntoAmerica@nbcuni.com. We'd love to have you join this journey of ours.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Special thanks to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the team at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for their help this week. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.