Arthur A. Schomburg was born in Puerto Rico on January 24, 1874. His father was of German background and his mother, from neighboring St. Thomas, of African ancestry. Some years later, young Arthur (then using his birth name, Arturo) left for St. Thomas and St. Croix to live with his maternal relatives. Later still, in 1891, he left for New York City.
Schomburg had become socially conscious even as a very young man in the Caribbean, and his social and political commitment was evident in New York from the beginning. It was only in 1873, after all, one year before his birth, that slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico-and even then with apprenticeships imposed upon the freedmen. As for the Virgin Islands (still Danish in that period), Abolition had been forced upon the plantation owners amidst some disorder, in St. Croix especially, this a mere generation earlier, in his mother's youth. Just thirty years later, in 1878, a few years before his own move to the Danish territories, St. Croix was again the site of conflict, the scene of bitter and widespread Black insurrection and incendiarism, the "great fire burn" as it was called. And even St. Thomas, the less resentful island, was, it is well-known, the birthplace of the gifted "Father of Pan Africanism," Edward Wilmot Blyden.
Born in 1832, Blyden was by the 1880's already revered. Perhaps, indeed, Schomburg's early sense of social commitment was not even especially remarkable in those islands. He was merely one of a number of exceptional young men and women born in the last decades of the nineteenth century in the Danish territories (to say nothing of Puerto Rico), emerging to become very prominent in Black New York's politics in the early years of the twentieth. They included Hubert Harrison, Frank Crosswaith, Elizabeth Hendricksen, Ashley Totten, and Casper Holstein. They were nearly all of decidedly, sometimes overtly, radical temper. Coming from small islands in the region of classic European imperialism, their reflections were apt to possess hemispheric and global sweep. Hendricksen and Crosswaith were Marxist, and Harrison's perspectives were, like Blyden's or Schomburg's, dominantly scholarly and Pan Africanist.
Schomburg's earliest causes in New York were understandably those of Puerto Rican and Cuban liberation from the burdens of Spanish colonialism and of greater freedom and respect for men of color within those two societies. In the Hispanic environment that he came to, these causes were live issues, embraced by popular feeling and the subject of political action and journalistic support. His position as secretary (1892-1896) of the important New York organization, Las Dos Antillas, assumed when he was barely eighteen, is testimony to his fervor. By the end of the century, however, the dismantling of Spanish rule in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the deaths of heroes such as Jose Marti and Antonio Maceo, the growing disappointments of his hopes for social liberations in Cuba and Puerto Rico, and his now lengthy residence in the city and local family commitments had had their effect.
He began to transfer his allegiance to the cause of Black America and to another cause that his rearing and his temper had prepared him for: that was wide research-and its dissemination-on the achievements of men and women of color everywhere, not least in the insufficiently examined Spanish-speaking world. In a community distinguished for the presence of several other collectors of Black-related material, Schomburg's diligence and broad concerns were such that his collection of books and artifacts became especially celebrated.
By no means a wealthy man, Schomburg was nevertheless anxious, even at some potential cost to himself, that the collection become and remain accessible to the Black reading public especially. This was effected in 1926. A Carnegie Corporation grant enabled New York Public Library to acquire it for its Harlem Branch at 135th St. and Lenox Avenue. The Harlem Library immediately became and remains the most renowned center of Black research in the United States, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as it is now called.
Arthur Schomburg's services to the Black community extended far beyond book and art and craft and memento sleuthing and collecting during his trips abroad and from his home in New York. And his services benefited communities well outside New York City. Perhaps most easily forgotten, because of its distance from New York, is Schomburg's extraordinary contribution to the growth of the collection at Tennessee's Fisk University-as an appraiser of prospective material and as its curator (and collector) from 1930-1931. In the understated language of his excellent biographer, Elinor Des Verney Sinnette, Schomburg's role was "pivotal." His vigor there, even before his curatorship, as an informal leader of seminars and symposia in the entire Nashville community (including non-Black institutions such as Vanderbilt) was typical of the spirit he brought to his work everywhere in the United States, including of course his curatorship from 1932 at the Harlem Library's Schomburg Collection.
It is easy to forget also that Schomburg wielded wide influence not only through his travels, but also as a result of his extensive correspondence. He also presented several papers on Black subjects, and wrote many articles for newspapers and for Crisis and Opportunity, the best known Black journals of his day. The title he chose for one article, "The Negro Digs Up His Past," included in the famous Harlem Renaissance edition of pieces for the Survey Graphic (1925), well describes his passion. But New York was inevitably the greatest beneficiary of his work. His very broad knowledge, extremely keen memory, and remarkable generosity with his time, his information, and his materials were inestimable boons to Black researchers and intellectuals, including some of the most distinguished figures in Black Historical writing. He was somewhat ill-rewarded, however, even by many who depended greatly on him. But his repeated disappointments never overcame his good-natured impulses.
Arthur Schomburg was interested in his own times as much as in those of his forebears. He combined essentially Radical convictions with a deceptively mild disposition and with an uncommon distaste for chauvinism and opportunism. Marcus Garvey's UNIA well accommodated his convictions and temper and he became an energetic Garveyite, attaching himself fervently even much later to causes loyal to the spirit of the movement.
He was interested in contemporary Black art and literature as much as in social science or history, and he functioned often as an informal, unpaid agent in New York for Black writers and artists. He was an enthusiastic member of the Negro Society for Historical Research and of the American Negro Academy, rising to the presidency of the latter in 1920. At the same time, his full-time day job in a bank notwithstanding, he was also extremely active in several other organizations, most especially the masons. He had become by 1918 the devoted and industrious Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of the Prince Hall masons of the State of New York.
Arthur Alfonso Schomburg died on June 10, 1938. An exhibit in his honor at the University at Buffalo is especially appropriate in at least one particular respect. He was untiring in assisting seasoned scholars but was genuinely delighted in instructing the young.