By Carlito Rovira
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was a Black Puerto Rican scholar who devoted his entire life to compiling vast collections of writings and art documenting significant events in Black history. When Schomburg was just 8 years old he was told by a school teacher that Black people had no history. This assertion naturally bothered him for a long time.
But as he gradually grew older, Schomburg found the teacher’s claim to make absolutely no sense. That encounter became Schomburg’s motivation which led him to set out and prove wrong such racist notions.
African chattel slavery also touched upon Puerto Rico, which became the consequence of Spanish colonialism in both Africa and Latin America. In fact, in 1527 a bloody slave revolts occurred in Puerto Rico, one of the earliest in the history of the Western Hemisphere.
Before moving to New York City, Schomburg was a member of the secret Revolutionary Committees of Puerto Rico. Decades before Schomburg’s birth the Revolutionary Committees were organized to launch an anti-slavery & pro-independence uprising in 1868 known as El Grito De Lares. Although that attempt to rid Spanish colonialism failed, the movement for independence continued to exist clandestinely.
Throughout his life Schomburg remained a firm advocate for Puerto Rico’s independence and self-determination. In fact, Schomburg partook in establishing a branch of the Revolutionary Committees in New York City, where he joined other Puerto Rican freedom fighters in approving what would become the Puerto Rican Flag of today.
As the persecution of Black people in the United States intensified, with lynching and white racist riots presenting a dangerous and menacing setting, coupled by Schomburg’s childhood memory of a demeaning comment made to him by a school teacher, raised his commitment to the idea of affirming the validity and truth of Black history.
Ridiculing the racist fables about the origins and history of Black people became Schomburg’s central focus. His noble quest eventually proved indisputably the extent of white supremacy’s corruption and baseless reasoning for existing.
Once in New York City, and for the remainder of his life, Schomburg collected large amounts of materials relevant to the history of Africa and the African diaspora. His work unavoidably brought to light the falsehood of white historians who interpreted the history of human social development strictly from a European perspective, thus concealing what are the African people’s pivotal role in that process.
Schomburg’s scholarly work was indeed revolutionary; it was part of a historical countering trend in academic and scientific fields that exposed the hypocrisy of racist and anti-working class apologists for capitalism — such were adherents of Social-Darwinism, Eugenics, etc.
Schomburg became a prominent figure during the Harlem Renaissance. Along with famous figures like Langston Hughes this movement succeeded in challenging the ideological facets of white supremacy through the literary, visual and performing arts.
The collection of literature and art materials he compiled are permanently housed at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, located in Harlem. Arturo Alfonso Schomberg shall forever be remembered as a hero of the oppressed, by those who fight for Puerto Rico’s independence and by those engaged in the historical struggle for Black liberation.