Recovered Black History: Arturo Schomburg

As a young boy, I encountered an issue I’m sure many other Latin@s, other people of color, and marginalized groups encounter. One day I asked a teacher why she didn’t teach the history of my people and her response was that my people didn’t have a history. When I reported this exchange to my father, he told me that was a lie and thus began my instruction on Puerto Rican Studies. One of the first figures my father taught me about was the Puerto Rican scholar, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.

You see, while Schomburg was in grade school, one of his teachers similarly claimed that blacks had no history, heroes or accomplishments. This exchange inspired Schomburg to prove the teacher wrong, and he dedicated his life to finding and documenting the accomplishments of Africans on their own continent and in the diaspora, including Afro-Latinos and led him to a life-long quest for Africana Knowledge. Schomburg would also become deeply allied with the African American experience and was one of the main figures of the Harlem Renaissance. He was also among the earliest advocates for Black Studies. Given his immense educational contribution to knowledge about the Black world, which continued to include a special interest in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Spain, Schomburg may be considered the most memorable of Afro-Latin@s in the United States. Schomburg’s life on the color line, his direct knowledge, and experience of racism in the Caribbean and the Untied States, and his kinship with other Afro-Caribbeans and African Americans served as a model for Afro-Latin@s through the first half of the 20th century. Almost one-hundred years after Arturo Schomburg called for the study of “Negro History,” he continues to serve as a symbol of diasporic unity and as an inspiration for Afro-Latin@s seeking knowledge about their African roots. Today, arguably the world’s largest repository of Africana, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, bears his name.

The following is an excerpt I found in my files. Take note that what Schomburg is proposing here is extremely radical for its time. He’s not merely proposing Black Studies, he’s also making a case for a pedagogy outside the Eurocentric paradigm. Furthermore, he’s inclusive of women, an unpopular and controversial notion at the time of its writing.

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Excerpt from “Racial Integrity: A plea for the Establishment of a Chair of Negro History in Our Schools and Colleges.”
— Address delivered at the Teachers’ Summer Class at the Cheney Institute, Pennsylvania, July, 1913

I am here with a sincere desire to awaken the sensibilities, to rekindle the dormant fibers of the soul, and to fire the racial patriotism by the study of Negro books. We often feel that so many things around us are warped and alienated. Let us see if we cannot agree to arrange a formula or create a basic construction, for the establishment of a substantial method of instruction for our young women and men in the material and the useful.

The object of this paper is not to revolutionize existing standards, but simply to improve them by amending them so that they will include the practical history of the Negro race from the dawn of civilization to the present time. We are reminded that the earliest instruction was imparted orally, and that this system is still found extant in Africa and among other Oriental nations. It is useful because it trains the mind to listen and to retain. the modern school with its many books, but without systematic lectures, turns out many graduates who are lacking in retentiveness and no sooner than the sound of the words has left the teacher’s lips, the subject has been forgotten; and if they are called upon to explain the theme, it is reduced to an incomprehensible mass of meaningless words. The university graduate is wont to overestimate his ability, fresh from the machinery that endows him with a parchment and crowns him with knowledge, he steps into the world to meet practical men with years of experience and mother wit it is a contrast, the professional man with the veneer of high art, and the acquaintance with the best authors, and up to date histories demanding recognition. All these books take their proper place when applied to white people, but when applied or measured up to black people, they lack the substantial and inspiring. They are like meat without salt, they bear no analogy to our own; for this reason it would be a wise plan for us to lay down a course of study in Negro History and achievements, before or after men and women have left certain schools.

It is the season for us to devote our time in kindling the torches that will inspire us to racial integrity. We need a collection or list of books written by our men and women. If they lack style, let the children of tomorrow correct the omissions of their sires. Let them build upon the crude work. Let them, because of opportunities that colleges and universities grant, crystallize the crude work and bring it out flawless. […]

There have been many histories of our people in slavery, peace and war, each serving a purpose. These books have been useful to disseminate the fragmentary knowledge to localities where the spark of learning has awakened the soul to thirst for more and better food… These have been our landmarks, our rock of ages; let us place around them the inspiring love so that the scholars of today with the vast opportunities, the splendid equipment, and the great expectations of the “survival of the fittest” will be spurred to do things by which we will be remembered, and in the coming days will be heralded for racial identity, racial preservation and racial unity.

We have reached the crucial period of our educational existence. I have shown by a few examples of the past available and useful material upon which we can base our future structure. We have chairs of almost everything, and believe we lack nothing, but we sadly need a chair of Negro history. The white institutions have their chairs of history; it is the history of their people, and whenever the Negro is mentioned in the text-books it dwindles down to a footnote. The white scholar’s mind and heart are fired because in the temple of learning he is told how on March 5, 1770, the Americans were able to beat the English; but to find Crispus Attucks it is necessary to go deep into special books. In the orations delivered at Bunker’s Hill, Daniel Webster never mentioned the Negroes having done anything, and is silent about Peter Salem. In the account of the battle of Long Island city and around New York under major-General Nathaniel Greene, no mention is made of the eight hundred Negro soldiers who imperiled their lives in the Revolutionary War. Cases can be shown right and left of such palpable omissions. […]

Where is our historian to give us our side view and our chair of Negro history, to teach our people our own history? We are at the mercy of the “flotsam and jetsam” of the white writers. The very learned Rev. Alexander Crummell, before the American Negro Academy, stated that he heard J.C. Calhoun say that the inferiority of the Negro was so self-evident that he would not believe him human unless he could conjugate Greek verbs; and yet it must have been evident to Calhoun that in North Carolina there were many Negros held as slaves who could read and write Arabic.[1] In those days men like Juan Latino, Amo, Capetein, Francis Williams, Rev. J. Pennington, and others could not only conjugate the Greek and Hebrew verbs, but had shown unmistakable evidences of learning, for they had received degrees from the universities of world-famed reputation. Yet in those days there were many whites unrestrained, enjoying the opportunities of education, who could not conjugate Greek roots nor verbs of the spoken language of the land. Yet this barrier was set up to persons restrained by force from the enjoyment of the most ordinary rights.

We need in the coming dawn the man who will give us the background for our future; it matters not whether he comes from the cloisters of the university or from the rank and file of the fields.

The Anglo-Saxon is effusive in his praises to the Saxon shepherds who lived on the banks of the river Elbe, to whom he pays blind allegiance. We need the historian and philosopher to give us with trenchant pen the story of our forefathers and let our soul and body, with phosphorent light, brighten the chasm that separates us. When the fact has been put down in the scroll of time, that the Negros of Africa smelted iron and tempered bronzes at the time Europe was wielding stone implements, that the use of letters was introduced among the savages of Europe about 1500 BC and the European carried them to America about the fifteenth century after the Christian era, that Phoenicia and Palestine will live forever in the memory of mankind since America as well as Europe has received letters from one and religion from the other,[2] we will feel prouder of the achievements of our sires. We must research diligently the annals of time and bring back from obscurity the dormant example of agriculture, industry, and commerce, upon these arts and sciences and make common the battleground of our heritage.

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My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…


1. See W.B. Hodgson, The Gospels in the negro patois (New York: Cornell University Library, 1857)
2. Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1910)