NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -As we celebrate Black History Month, there’s a well known place in Harlem that’s like no other when it comes to studying black history.
A lot of New Yorkers know the Schomburg Center, but do we really know its origins?
CBSN New York’s Elise Finch takes a look inside the nearly century-old public library.
Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas, Alvin Ailey are just some of the historic names that echo through the landmark Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg may not sound as familiar, but his own roots helped shape black history in America.
He was born in Puerto Rico in the late 1800s to a Puerto Rican father of German ancestry a black mother from the island of Saint Croix.
“So when we talk about Arturo Alfonso Schomburg collecting the things that are part of the African diaspora, it’s because that’s how he grew up,” said chief of staff Kevin Matthews.
As a young boy in Puerto Rico, Schomburg was told black people lacked history and culture. That set him on a lifelong mission around the globe to collect evidence that would prove otherwise.
“Arturo Schomburg was ahead of his time. The term that we use colonial now, about the African diaspora, was something that he actually understood during the period of the Harlem Renaissance, if not before. He knew that the dispersal of our people around the world, took our art, our literature, and our customs, and he spent his adulthood trying to find those pieces, those vindicating evidences as he called them,” said Matthews. “So during the Harlem Renaissance people actually went to Arturo Schomburg’s home, to research and to learn things.”
After moving to Harlem as a teenager, Schomburg collected more than 10,000 rare books, documents, artifacts and artwork.
“And it was from noticing that collection that people in this community, who were also trying to find out more about their own history and culture, said ‘Well, maybe we could do something to get Mr. Schomburg’s collection here.’ So there were community activists that helped the librarians here at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library, to find a way of getting his collection. So the NYPL, with the assistance of the Carnegie foundation, purchased his 10,000 items. And we’re intentional about saying purchased, because it was valuable. And today we’re at over 11 million items and growing,” Matthews said.
The only video of Schomburg known to exist shows him at the center in 1937 after becoming its first curator.
Today, the Schomburg Center is much more than just an archive. It’s a focal point of Harlem’s community that’s helping educate the next generation.
“This is a really meaningful opportunity for our students. We chose to come to the Schomburg Center, because, one, it’s Black History Month, and although we do celebrate black history every single day of the year, today is especially important for us to come here,” said teacher Melanie Matos of the Global Community Charter School. “Because it allows them to cultivate all of the knowledge that they have here at the Schomburg Center, and it’s extremely important for them to know their history, and all of the different things that make them who they are.”
The students all said they liked their trip, and there was a lot they learned.
“I tell young people all the time, there is no course, there is no curriculum, there is no major, there is no PhD one can get where you learn everything there is about the people who came from Africa,” Matthews said. “Theres always new literature, there’s always new scholarship. There’s new music and there’s music that you’ve never heard. There are films you’ve never seen before. There are great actors and directors you’ve never seen before, the great playwrights not everyone has seen. There is no course one can take, it’s a lifelong pursuit. Every month is black history month here.”
The Schomburg Center was founded in 1925. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 2017.