By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“When we consider the facts, certain chapters of American history will have to be reopened. Just as Black men were influential factors in the campaign against the slave trade, so they were among the earliest instigators of the abolition movement. Indeed there was a dangerous calm between the agitation for the suppression of the slave trade and the beginning of the campaign for emancipation.
“During that interval coloured men were very influential in arousing the attention of public men who in turn aroused the conscience of the country. Continuously between 1808 and 1845, men like Prince Saunders, Peter Williams, Absalom Jones, Nathaniel Paul, and Bishops Varick and Richard Allen, the founders of the two wings of African Methodism, spoke out with force and initiative, and men like Denmark Vesey (1822), David Walker (1828) and Nat Turner (1831) advocated and organized schemes for direct action.”
Excerpt from essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” written by Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (January 24, 1874-June 10, 1938) published in the March 1925 edition of Survey Graphic magazine.
African-American historian Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born on January 24, 1874 in Puerto Rico. His mother was an African-Caribbean woman from St. Croix in the Virgin Islands.
Schomburg was reared by his mother in Puerto Rico during his early life and spent part of his childhood with his mother’s extended family in St. Croix. In her book Arthur Alfonso Schomburg: Black Bibliophile & Collector: a Biography, Elinor Des Verney Sinnette writes:
“At some point in Arturo’s childhood Mary Joseph perhaps unable to care for herself and Arturo adequately in Puerto Rico or perhaps just longing to be close to her parents left San Juan to settle in the Virgin Islands where Arturo became a member of the Nicholas Joseph family of St. Croix.”
According to available information, Schomburg’s interest in African history was awakened by a White supremacist teacher who taught him in the fifth grade. The teacher taught that Africans had no history, no heroes and no great moments. The young Schomburg was inspired to spend his life “digging up” the history of Africans to prove his teacher wrong.
In March 1925 Schomburg published his essay “The Negro Digs Up His Past” in an issue of the Survey Graphic magazine devoted to the intellectual life of Harlem. The essay inspired African-American historian John Henrik Clarke (January 1, 1915-July 16, 1998) who wrote that at 17 years old (1932) he left his home in Columbus, Georgia and travelled to Harlem, New York in search of Schomburg to further his studies in African history.
In an interview with the Civil Rights Journal Clarke spoke of his meeting with Schomburg, who said to him:
“Sit down, son. What you are calling African history and Negro history is nothing but the missing pages of world history. You will have to know general history to understand these specific aspects of history. You have to study your oppressor. That’s where your history got lost.”
Clarke said that Schomburg “opened up my eyes to the fact that I came from an old people, older than slavery, older than the people who oppressed us”.
Barely 17, Schomburg immigrated to the U.S., arriving in New York on April 17, 1891. He worked at various jobs for survival (including elevator operator, bellhop, printer and porter) while pursuing an education at night school. He experienced the White supremacist culture of America especially since the three women to whom he was married (at different periods of his life) were all African-American women born in southern states.
He travelled to those southern states to visit family during the dreadful period of African-American voters suffering disenfranchisement through literacy tests and poll taxes plus the frequent lynching of African-Americans (including Tulsa, Oklahoma, May 1921 and Rosewood, Florida, January 1923). Schomburg was a man before his time in his calls for the inclusion of African history in the curriculum.
In his published work of 1913 entitled Racial integrity: a plea for the establishment of a chair of Negro history in our schools and colleges, etc. he advocates for educators to “include the practical history of the Negro race from the dawn of civilization to the present time”.
He was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a co-founder of the Negro Society for Historical Research and served as president of the American Negro Academy. In 1926, with a grant from the Carnegie Corporation, the New York Public Library purchased Schomburg’s collection of books and artifacts on African history for $10,000. Schomburg was appointed a member of the Advisory Committee responsible for overseeing the collection which was officially named “The Arthur A. Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art”.
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, located at 515 Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, New York, holds the largest collection of African-American literature/information (documents and artifacts) which includes Schomburg’s collection. The Center houses a theatre, two galleries, a lecture hall, more than 125,000 books and a large collection of archived material documenting the history of Africans from the African continent and the Diaspora.
From May 20, 1995 through April 28, 1996 to celebrate its 70th anniversary, the Center featured an exhibition of the life and times of Schomburg entitled Arturo Alfonso Schomburg: The Man and His Times.
On their website the Centre states:
“The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is one of the world’s leading research facilities devoted to the preservation of materials on the global African and African diasporan experiences. A focal point of Harlem’s cultural life, the Center also functions as the national research library in the field, providing free access to its wide-ranging noncirculating collections. It also sponsors programs and events that illuminate and illustrate the richness of black history and culture. The Center is generally recognized as one of the leading institutions of its kind in the world. For over 80 years the Center has collected, preserved, and provided access to materials documenting black life, and promoted the study and interpretation of the history and culture of peoples of African descent.”
We are almost at the end of January and it seems as if the year is moving very quickly with African Heritage Month just one week away. Although we are African (or whatever else we choose to name ourselves) it is during February that most people think about our history. February has been recognized as Black History Month, African Heritage Month and African Liberation Month for more than 40 years. Since 1976 it was expanded from a one-week recognition of African history to a month.
In February, schools, business places and community organizations usually plan at least one activity to acknowledge the history and culture of Africans. Most of these events are nothing more than an excuse to trot out some Africans in African attire and sample some African food, drum and dance.
We need to ensure that any event in our schools or the places where we are employed does more than provide entertainment in recognition of the month. At the very least include the history of Africans in Canada with a display of books and posters. There are bookstores in the city owned by African-Canadians where the owners are extremely knowledgeable about appropriate books for a display.
Like Schomburg and the man recognized as the founder of Negro History Week in 1926 (Crater Godwin Woodson) which eventually became Black History Month in 1976 and now African Heritage Month/African Liberation Month, do more to spread the knowledge. Read a book about African history, read to your children, buy a book for your children or other people’s children. Starting now!