The Sherlock Holmes of Black History: Arturo A. Schomburg

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, Afro-Latino, the Sherlock Holmes of Black History. (January 24, 1874-June 8, 1938) A bibliophile, collector, writer, and a key intellectual figure in the Harlem Renaissance.


Born in Puerto Rico in 1874, to a mother of Danish West Indian origin and a father of German ancestry, Schomburg moved to New York in 1891. There he joined a community of independence activists from Cuba and Puerto Rico. He was the recording secretary for the political club Las Dos Antillas, which as part of the larger Cuban Revolutionary Party (PRC) sought to liberate the two islands from Spanish rule and establish a progressive social order in new Antillean republics.

As he moved among communities of color from Puerto Rico, Cuba, the United States, and the West Indies, Schomburg dedicated himself to the collection of books and historical documents about people of African descent around the world. Negroes should emulate the Jews, he argued, by maintaining their feeling of kinship despite being scattered among nations who despise them. He held that the project of international Black unity required an international network of intellectuals and collectors who could provide firm historical footing for racial pride and unity. To that end he helped found the Negro Society for Historical Research (1911) and spent his own time and money searching out books and documents. “We need a collection or list of books written by our men and women,” Schomburg wrote in 1913. “We need the historian and philosopher to give us, with trenchant pen, the story of our forefathers and let our soul and body, with phosphorescent light, brighten the chasm that separates us.”

Documenting Negro contributions to world civilization through the science of history, he argued, would inspire the racial patriotism necessary for building an international Negro alliance across the gaps created by national boundaries and provincialism. Schomburg’s idea of history, shared with his allies in the Cuban and Puerto Rican independence movement and with his colleagues in the Negro Society for Historical Research, emerged in dialogue with dominant ideas about race and nation. White historians of the day justified colonialism and segregation by arguing that Africans and their descendants were incapable of civilization.

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Schomburg did not question basic assumptions about the universality of civilization, but he committed himself to the revolutionary act of disproving contemporary theories of Black inferiority. Schomburg set out to prove racist historians wrong by collecting evidence of Black poets, philosophers, composers, military heroes, novelists, and painters. Schomburg’s personal collection made him an invaluable resource for the leading Black scholars of the day, including W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Henrik Clarke, and Charles S. Johnson. They published his essays and, more frequently, relied on his assistance in their own research. Then in 1926 he sold his collection to the New York Public Library. After retiring from his job as a clerk for a Wall Street firm, he took over as curator of the collection at the 135th St. Branch of the Public Library until his death in 1938. The Schomburg Center remains the premier archive for the study of Black culture and history in the United States and the world.

Sources: The World of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg by Hoffnung-Garskof, Jesse, The Afro-Latin@ Reader: History and Culture in the United States, 2010.

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