How This Afro-Puerto Rican Scholar Became Known As ‘The Sherlock Holmes Of Black History’


After a fifth-grade teacher told him, “Black people have no history, no heroes, no great moments,” he was inspired to learn about Black history. Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, also known as Arthur Schomburg, began research on Africa and the diaspora to prove his teacher and racist historians wrong, and over time, he became known as “the Sherlock Holmes of Black History” due to his persistent digging for manuscripts, Black achievements, and historical truths.

Schomburg, a collector, writer, and key intellectual figure in the Harlem Renaissance, was born on January 24, 1874, in Santurce, Puerto Rico, to Mary Joseph, an African mother from the Danish Islands, and Carlos Federico Schomburg, a German father. He attended the Instituto Popular (Popular Institute) in San Juan and then St. Thomas College in the Danish Virgin Islands, where he studied Negro Literature.

He moved to New York City when he was 17 years old, in 1891. He moved to Harlem first, then to Brooklyn. Schomburg became an outspoken supporter of Cuban and Puerto Rican independence, establishing Las dos Antillas, a cultural and political organization dedicated to the islands’ independence.

When the Cuban revolutionary struggle ended and his home country, Puerto Rico, became a part of the United States, Schomburg shifted his focus to the African-American community he now belonged to. He began researching Black Americans’ ties to Africa, and as he traveled through Black communities in Puerto Rico, Cuba, the United States, and the West Indies, he collected books, pamphlets, and historical documents about people of African descent all over the world.

He also wrote articles on the history of the African diaspora for major Black periodicals such as Negro World, The New York Amsterdam News, The Crisis, and Opportunity based on his collection. Schomburg believed that international Black unity required an international network of intellectuals and collectors, so he assisted in the establishment of the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1911 and used his own money to search for books and other historical documents.

“We need a collection or list of books written by our men and women,” Schomburg wrote in 1913, according to one report. “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.”

Schomburg decided to collect evidence of Black philosophers, composers, poets, novelists, military heroes, and painters at a time when White historians argued that Africans and their descendants were incapable of civilization. His carefully curated library collection would be an invaluable resource for Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as other Black scholars such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Henrik Clarke, and Alain Locke.

In 1926, Schomburg sold his collection to the New York Public Library. And 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 at the age of 64.

In 1973, that is 35 years after his death, the New York Public Library branch at 135th Street in Harlem was renamed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. That year, the New York Times reported that Schomburg’s collection contains representative works of every major Black author.

“It also has a 1781 address by Jupiter Hammon, America’s first black poet; copies of the almanacs by Benjamin Banneker, who was employed by Thomas Jefferson; the scrapbook of Ira Aldridge, the black Shakespearean actor; the first novel by an American black man—“Clotel, or the President’s Daughter” by William Wells Brown; the 81 manuscript volumes of field notes used by Gunnar Myrdal in writing “An American Dilemma,” and histories of such ancient African kingdoms as Ghana, Mele, Songhai and Benin,” The New York Times wrote.

It said the collection holds more than “55,000 volumes, 3,000 manuscripts, 25 archival record groups, 2,000 prints and posters, 15,000 photographs, 240 reels of magnetic tape recordings, 5,000 reels of microfilm, as well as phonograph records, sheet music and newspapers.”

Today, the Schomburg Center remains the “premier archive” for the study of Black culture and history in the U.S. and the world.


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