KEY TAKEAWAYS

• The 135th Street branch of The New York Public Library, which would eventually become the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, served as a thriving center for black life and consciousness for the African Americans settling in Harlem after fleeing the South as part of the Great Migration.

• The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture was seeded in 1926 with the help of a $10,000 grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York, which allowed The New York Public Library to acquire collector Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s rare manuscripts and books by black authors.

Schomburg’s lifelong pursuit of collecting black-authored works was aimed at challenging negative stereotypes about blacks. Over the course of 20 years, he amassed a collection of over 10,000 items, including 5,000 volumes, 3,000 manuscripts, and 2,000 etchings.

The Schomburg Center has only grown in stature in the 21st century as one of the country’s leading archival institutions, having recently acquired the personal papers of James Baldwin and the “lost” chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

 

 
"From Slavery Through Reconstruction" (detail), one of four panels by Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) from his "Aspects of Negro Life" mural series. Oil on canvas, 1934. (Photo: The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division)

In the final panel of Aaron Douglas’s series of four murals, Aspects of Negro Life (1934), a dark figure is bathed in a bull’s-eye that radiates outward, blooming from the brightest yellow gold and softening to amber. Holding a saxophone, the figure stands atop a wheel that doubles as a curved staircase. The image, titled “Song of the Towers,” communicates the ecstatic present, serving as a coda to the series as a whole. To the viewer, the journey towards the soul’s fulfillment is no longer singular, but encompasses the joy of the entire race.

The well-known black-and-white photograph that shows Douglas presenting “Song of the Towers” to Arturo Alfonso Schomburg at the 135th Street branch of The New York Public Library (NYPL) doesn’t quite do the painting justice. The bold strokes and warmth of the colors of the painting’s black-informed modernist aesthetic don’t come to life in the photograph. And of course, it cannot capture the joy that Schomburg must have felt whenever he looked at Douglas’s murals in the library’s third-floor reading room. There, after three decades of commitment to the project of tirelessly collecting evidence of black life and black brilliance in the Western Hemisphere, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg now served as curator for the collection that bore his name.

“The murals,” Schomburg said, “look down on me and I can look up to them for relief and pleasure and support when any of the so-called superior race comes to town to look at our wonders.”

After three decades of commitment to the project of tirelessly collecting evidence of black life and black brilliance in the Western Hemisphere, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg now served as curator for the collection that bore his name.

In 1926 the fruits of Schomburg’s meticulous labors were acquired by The New York Public Library with the support of Carnegie Corporation of New York for $10,000. This purchase — valued at just over $140,000 in today’s dollars, but in fact priceless — established the Schomburg Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints at the 135th Street Library, seeding the formation of what today is known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Now in its 93rd year, the Schomburg Center is home to one of the largest collections of letters, literary and historical manuscripts, prints and photographs, rare books, fine art, audio and visual materials, and printed and other ephemera of the African diaspora, now totaling more than 11 million items. In 1972 the center was designated one of The New York Public Library’s four Research Libraries, and later underwent an extensive renovation and expansion, first in 1992 and more recently in 2016. It now hosts a range of public forums and events, welcoming tens of thousands of visitors per year. The legacy of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s project to reclaim the narrative and history of black peoples across the diaspora has been fulfilled.

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Aaron Douglas (left) discusses his new painting “Song of the Towers” in 1934 with Schomburg Collection curator Arturo Alfonso Schomburg. (Photo: The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division)

Born in 1874 in Puerto Rico to a black mother and white father of German or perhaps mixed ancestry, Schomburg gained an awareness of the barriers between color and class at an early age. It was his fifth-grade teacher who told the young Arturo that “black people had no history, no heroes, no great moments,” wrote Elinor Sinnette in her 1988 study, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, Black Bibliophile & Collector: A Biography.

For Schomburg, this false assertion about black humanity haunted him as much as it fueled his pursuit for evidence to prove the contrary. “We need in the coming dawn the man who will give us the background for our future,” Schomburg wrote in 1913. “It matters not whether he comes from the cloisters of the university or from the rank and file of the fields.”

Arriving in New York in 1891 at the age of 17, Schomburg quickly immersed himself in the affairs of African Americans, integrating with the growing black community in Harlem and the freemasons of Prince Hall. Through his involvement with the community, he met and befriended journalist and bibliophile John Edward Bruce, who came to be known as Bruce Grit, in what would grow into a most consequential friendship. Grit became a father figure to the young Schomburg, and the two bonded over their mutual love of books, history, and learning. As a result of Grit’s influence and mentorship, Schomburg began his lifelong pursuit of rare manuscripts and books authored by black peoples. A passionate collector was born.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, New York City, like all of America, was undergoing massive transformations. Black migrants who uprooted themselves from the South to resettle in the North were arriving in Harlem, whose once dominant Jewish community ceded more and more blocks to the newcomers. Following World War I, the psyche of black people shifted, and with that shift came hopes of greater inclusion in American society. Yet that optimism was met with a fierce and bloody backlash. In the summer of 1919, northern cities that had experienced an influx of African Americans from the South as part of the Great Migration erupted. Nascent communities of color were met with brutal force, rioting, burning, and lynching. Still, black migration did not abate.

History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generations must repair and offset.… The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future.”

— Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, “The Negro Digs Up His Past”

By 1920, when more than 100,000 African Americans called Harlem home, Ernestine Rose, a white woman, began her appointment as head librarian of the 135th Street library. Born in Bridgehampton, New York, and named after a famous 19th-century feminist, Rose witnessed the growth of a dynamic but underserved community, one where the public library had not kept pace with the voracious interests of its African American patrons. Rose recognized the crucial role of local libraries in building strong communities, a belief in harmony with other values of the Progressive Era, and was convinced that the 135th Street branch, situated as it was between the YMCA and a public school, could serve as a thriving center of black life and consciousness. She believed that “race pride and race knowledge” must be “stimulated and guided” and, moreover, that the black community needed and deserved a meeting place for its citizens.

The same year that Rose began her tenure at 135th Street, The New York Public Library hired its first African American librarian, Catherine A. Latimer, and in 1923 Regina Anderson became the second African American librarian to join NYPL. At the time, the Harlem branch’s holdings were extremely limited, and due to their popularity, the books in the collection deteriorated rapidly. In a bold move to preserve, maintain, and build the collection, in 1924 library staff established a reference collection of black books on the library’s third floor, enlisting the aid of community leaders to help support the expansion. Around this time, Schomburg, who had been closely entwined with the affairs of black historical and intellectual life in New York since his arrival in the city decades before, began hosting a small group of like-minded men and women, including author and educator James Weldon Johnson, at the 135th Street library to discuss black scholarship. (Schomburg himself had already began loaning items from his personal collection to the library.) Not long afterward, the branch was renamed the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints.

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Dated May 14, 1926, the appropriation by Carnegie Corporation for the Schomburg library collection. (Carnegie Corporation of New York Records, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University)

The year 1925 would prove pivotal if not momentous for the efforts by black scholars and cultural workers — as well as for Arturo Alfonso Schomburg himself — in the project of curating and educating the public in the history of African identity in the Americas.

“History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generations must repair and offset,” Schomburg wrote in a landmark essay, “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” first published in the March 1925 issue of Survey Graphic. “So among the rising democratic millions,” Schomburg continued, “we find the Negro thinking more collectively, more retrospectively than the rest, and apt out of the very pressure of the present to become the most enthusiastic antiquarian of them all.” This special number of the magazine, guest edited by the eminent black scholar Alain Locke, took as its theme “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro.” Locke was signaling the beginning of an acute cultural moment in African American life, the arrival of the “New Negro.” This movement, which later became known as the Harlem Renaissance, codified the expansion in political and cultural consciousness among African Americans, fueled by the energetic aspirations of black migrants from the South settling in Harlem. Locke, later dubbed the “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, expanded the special issue of Survey Graphic into a book-length anthology that was published later that year. Schomburg’s widely regarded essay captured the spirit of this history-making moment. “The American Negro,” Schomburg wrote, “must remake his past in order to make his future.”

Over the course of more than 20 years, Schomburg spent a small personal fortune amassing a collection of over 10,000 items, comprised of more than 5,000 volumes, 3,000 manuscripts, 2,000 etchings, and, notably, several very early (and very rare) black-authored works.

 

That summer, the main branch of The New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street hosted an exhibition of select works from Schomburg’s personal collection. The first of its kind in the NYPL system, the show featured only a modest offering of black antiquities — rare books and papers — displayed beneath glass in traditional exhibition cases, yet it sparked the curiosity and imagination of visitors and library officials alike.

“Within a dozen cases there lies the story of a race,” observed a writer for the Christian Science Monitor in August 1925. “Through their clear glass tops there shines that which arrests, challenges, commands attention.” Organized in partnership with librarians Rose and Latimer, the show remained on display for four months in the famous library.

Over the course of more than 20 years, Schomburg spent a small personal fortune amassing a collection of over 10,000 items, comprised of more than 5,000 volumes, 3,000 manuscripts, 2,000 etchings, and, notably, several very early (and very rare) black-authored works. Head of the mail division at Bankers Trust by day, he spent his off hours dedicated to this enterprise, frequently corresponding with luminaries and scholars of the day like W.E.B. Du Bois for suggestions and leads. His questing could border on the obsessive; Schomburg spent 12 years doggedly tracking down a portrait of the scientist and polymath Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806), who helped produce some of America’s earliest almanacs. All the while, Schomburg took on leadership roles with Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, and for a time spearheaded the Negro Society for Historical Research. He asked his coterie of prominent friends like Langston Hughes to bring back little-known treasures from their travels. His earliest acquisitions of note were the personal papers and letters of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture and the first edition of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773), the first book of poems published by an African American poet. (In 1915 Schomburg compiled a bibliography of black poets with James Weldon Johnson.) He had long been storing the bulk of his collection in his residence at 105 Kosciuszko Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, but it was time for it find a proper home.

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A studio portrait of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg taken in about 1896, five years or so after he arrived in New York City. (Photo: The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division)

Buoyed by the energy of the Fifth Avenue exhibition as well as the critical reception to his Survey Graphic essay, Schomburg began exploring options for the sale of his massive collection. He initially approached Eugene Kinckle Jones, president of the National Urban League, and its board chairman, L. Hollingsworth Wood. Though they turned him down, they helped broker conversations between Schomburg, The New York Public Library, and Carnegie Corporation of New York. “At present the library is in the small private dwelling house of Mr. Schomburg in shelves in his living-room, his dining room, in piles on the piano, and in boxes in the basement,” Wood wrote in December 1925, the opening of a correspondence between the National Urban League and Carnegie Corporation of New York.

At first, Schomburg hedged at the idea of accepting The New York Public Library system as the permanent repository for his labor of love. In a March 1926 letter to Corporation president Frederick Keppel, Wood explained that “the difficulty with having the title to library definitely in the Trustees of The New York Public Library is that it practically clamps this library down in New York City, no matter where what we may call the cultural center of Negro life shall hereafter turn to be. The development of this cultural center in New York has been so recent, the whole business of Negro citizenship in the North is so fluid, that the idea of a separate board of trustees was developed to meet that situation and also Mr. Schomburg desired to be still intimately associated with his library.” Those fears were eventually assuaged, and on May 14, 1926, it was official: with Resolution X-281, the office of the president of Carnegie Corporation of New York approved the purchase of the “Arthur Schomburg library collection on negro life and history” for The New York Public Library in the amount of $10,000.

As it turned out, Schomburg’s huge collection had yet to be professionally cataloged. So, upon his retirement from Bankers Trust, the legendary collector himself became the curator of the collection — and indeed, the world-famous library — that would one day bear his name, his position supported by a modest additional grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. Ensconcing himself on the third floor of the 135th Street library and working with a group of dedicated librarians to classify the materials, Schomburg served as curator of the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints from 1932 until his death in 1938.

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Researchers at work in the Division of Negro Literature, History and Prints at the 135th Street library in 1938. (Photo: The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division)

In the decades since Schomburg’s death, Harlem has remained the vital cultural capital to the African diaspora and the Schomburg Center has only grown in stature as one of the nation’s leading archival institutions. In recent years alone, the Center has acquired the personal archives of James Baldwin and the long-rumored “lost” chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Schomburg’s lasting project was to collect rare items that documented and preserved black culture as a means of resistance. Teaching racial pride, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the man and his books, presented a counternarrative meant to inoculate black children from feelings of shame, providing them an armor against anti-black racism. And even as the Schomburg Center moves into the 21st century, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s legacy lives on. As the Center’s new director, the poet Kevin Young, told the New York Times in August 2018, “It’s such an interesting time for libraries and archives, given the rise of digital collections and changes in reading.”

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"Song of the Towers" — one of four panels from Aaron Douglas’s "Aspects of Negro Life" mural series. Oil on canvas, 1934. (Photo: The New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division)

Today, the four panels of Aaron Douglas’s Aspects of Negro Life, hover overhead in the reading room of the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division at the Schomburg Center. Looking up at Douglas’s magisterial mural series, scholars, visitors, and students of all ages can consider the long rhapsodic evolution and humanity of African American life, rendered in the artist’s bold colors, deep silhouettes, and fractured backgrounds. The murals transmit an understanding of all the many lives that African Americans have endured, excavating a denied past, while allowing viewers to then journey toward their own bittersweet moments of reckoning, embracing all future possibilities to come. ■