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Arthur A. Schomburg was a distinguished Black bibliophile and self-trained historian who spent many years of his life collecting and preserving rare Africana books, pamphlets, personal journals, and other important artifacts related to people of African descent. Schomburg could be considered a vindicatitionist historian who collected items that were used in vindicating Africa and people of African descent from the white racist pseudo-scientific scholarship of the late nineteenth and early twentieth. Schomburg dedicated his life to convincing people of African descent of their true historical contributions to humanity in world history, and that their humanity and self-worth were not determined by what white people thought of them. In spite of the many years he spent collecting books and artifacts he was not considered by many of his contemporaries like W.E.B DuBois or Alain Locke as a true intellectual. Schomburg's biographer Elinor Des Verney Sinnette and his contemporary Claude McKay both highlight this dilemma, as a source of frustration for Schomburg during his lifetime. For example, an embarrassing and very bitter experience for Schomburg showing this lack of intellectual respect came when he was offered a job by the New York Public Library (NYPL) to become curator for the collection of books and artifacts he had sold earlier to the library for $10,000 in 1926. (2)
Despite the fact that Schomburg had spent many years collecting many of theses rare items which he had sold to the NYPL, and would had been more than qualified to be the curator of them, some African-American academicians, particularly W.E.B DuBois, tried to stop his appointment. Looking back, one could ask why anyone would try to stop Schomburg from being the curator of his own collection, which he had sold to the NYPL. The main reason is because Schomburg did not possess a college degree. DuBois and other academicians tried to stop the appointment of Schomburg because they felt he was not qualified to do the job without a college degree. Schomburg may not have acquired a college degree nor had the professional training Du Bois was privileged to have in his lifetime, but did this mean that Schomburg could not be considered a scholar or intellectual? (3)
This article seeks to address several questions. What constitutes authority concerning scholarship amongst African-Americans, and is our definition of what an intellectual is defined by the standards of a white-dominated American academy? Do African-American scholars have a history of maligning other African-Americans without PhDs? I believe Schomburg's sheds light on these issues concerning what is an intellectual. A key argument here is that intellectual authority is not always predicated on professional trained in the academy. Along with other people of different ethnicities throughout the world, people of African descent in America have a long tradition of non-academic intellectuals who were committed to the life of the mind, and worked towards the best of humanist traditions. Schomburg's dedication to people of African descent in collecting Africana books and artifacts, and sharing his tremendous knowledge with others, represents the perfect example of the life of the mind and working towards sharing the best of humanist traditions. In this article, I will examine Schomburg's personal development as a Pan-Africanist scholar, his contribution to the Black history movement, and his involvement in local research societies in Harlem and Brooklyn, New York. I will argue that Schomburg was not only an intellectual, but building upon Winston James' suggestion, I will seek to show that Schomburg's life long commitment to people of African descent can be directly traced back to the influence of his Black mother. (4)
Schomburg was born in Puerto Rico on January 24, 1874 to Mary Joseph, a thirty year-old soltera (unmarried) black migrant worker from St. Croix. Carlos Federica Schomburg, his father, was the son of a second-generation German immigrant and a Puerto Rican woman. Schomburg never really knew his father well because his parents never married, and he was raised primarily by his mother. Being raised by his mother had a tremendous influence on Schomburg's worldview about black people from early on in his life, as his biographer Elinor Des Verney Sinnette writes: "It is evident that Schomburg held his mother and maternal grandparents in high esteem. Mary Joseph was the person who exerted the greatest influence on his life through her 'painstaking and faithful ideas of womanhood ... being a loving mother of high and pure character.'" Schomburg's first impressions of Africa symbolically came from his mother; this is something that must not be taken for granted in assessing the origin of his love for Africa and her descendants. James has suggested that young Schomburg probably spent time in the Virgin Islands and more than likely was well-acquainted with his maternal relatives. While there were many people in Puerto Rico with black parents, what makes Schomburg's case so special is that culturally his mother was not a native of Puerto Rico. Even though Schomburg's maternal family was Episcopalian, he must have seen remnants of African cultural practices that were transmitted from Africa to St. Croix and the Virgin Islands that were different and stronger than those were practiced in Puerto Rico. (5)
The fact that St. Croix had a predominate black population meant that stronger African cultural traits were more than likely more influential on his maternal family side than what he may have seen outside of his house growing up in Puerto Rico. As a child growing up, consciously and unconsciously, Schomburg saw Africa and her descendants through his mother and her relatives. In addition, the love and the positive reinforcement that Mary Joseph showed and expressed to her son needs to be considered. Sinnette relates, "His fifth-grade teacher is said to have told him that black people had no history, no heroes, no great moments--and because of that remark the young Arturo became fired with ambition to find evidence of his past." This incident may have given the young Schomburg the ambition and motivation to prove that his was teacher wrong, but what needs to be considered is that more than likely he told his mother about the incident, and more than likely she supported and encouraged her son to refute the racist thinking of his teacher. It can also be assumed that Schomburg's mother was very encouraging and supportive in his decision to join one of the many youth clubs in Puerto Rico. (6)
The young Schomburg joined a literary club that had a very special interest in history. Even though color prejudice in Puerto Rico was not as intense as in America, Schomburg remembered that the young white-Hispanics and mixed-race students who were near white in appearance had a tendency to point to the achievements of their ancestors without mentioning anything people of African descent had accomplished in Puerto Rico. The young Schomburg decided then to thoroughly read and study the achievements of blacks in Puerto Rico, and was later able to equally boast that Black people in Puerto Rico were just as important as white people. Moreover something else happened that sparked the interest of what could be considered the young Schomburg's first attempt to systematically study people of African descent from an Afro-Caribbean perspective. (7)
There finally developed a kind of historic rivalry between the club members, and Mr. Schomburg finally found his research extending to the Virgin Islands, Haiti, San Domingo, Cuba and other islands in the Caribbean. Later, when he came to America, he began to seriously follow his hobby, and finally began to systematically collect books on the Negro from all over the world. (8)
The intense historic rivalry that developed between Schomburg and his peers was carried outside the limits of Puerto Rico and allowed Schomburg to study the achievements of Blacks throughout the Caribbean.
It can be assumed from the decisions Schomburg made later in his life that his mother was very supportive of his earlier quest to search out and study the contributions black people made in Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean. In fact, it is my contention that his mother's strong example later influenced Schomburg's decision to marry three different African-American during his lifetime. I am convinced that being raise by Mary Joseph, his early childhood experience with his teacher and childhood peers, and the cultural upbringing he received from his maternal family laid the foundational love he had for Africa and its descents throughout the Atlantic Diaspora. Furthermore, it laid the underpinning for his Afro-Latin and Pan-African worldview, his early political activism with other Afro-Latinos in New York, and his later involvement with African-American organizations. Schomburg's positive sense of people of African descent had already been developing before he immigrated to America. This should not be taken for granted, especially given the fact that later on he disassociates himself from the Puerto Rican and Cuban movement with which he was involved earlier. (9)
Schomburg arrived in New York on April 17, 1891, and settled in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan, where he quickly blended in with many other Puerto Rican and Cuban immigrants. After working various jobs as an elevator operator, bellhop, printer, and porter, Schomburg eventually in 1901 found employment at the law firm of Roger Pryor, Mellis, and Harris (General Roger A. Pry was a former Civil War officer). As a messenger, Schomburg did exceptional clerical and research for the firm and remained employed there until 1906. After leaving Pryor, Mellis, and Harries, Schomburg found another job as bank messenger for the Wall Street firm Banker Trust Company. He remained there for twenty-three years until he retired on a medical disability. (10)
In 1892, Schomburg became a prominent figure of the Partido Revolucionario Cubano, and was the secretary of the small revolutionary club called "Las Dos Antillas." The Las Dos Antillas were a group of Puerto Rican and Cuban revolutionaries who collected weapons, medicine, and funds to support the. independence movement of Puerto Rico and Cuba. Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof notes that, "Along with 'Borinquen,' led by Sotero Figueroa, and a women's club called 'Mercedes Varona,' Las Dos Antillas was one of only three revolutionary clubs created by the Puerto Rican enclave within the New York Cuban community." During the next six years of his life Schomburg and other Puerto Rican and Cuban nationalists were motivated by Cuban revolutionary leaders like Jose Marti, who lost his life in the struggle for independence against Spain in 1895. Marti and the mulatto Cuban general Antonio Maceo, who also lost his life in 1896, had become symbols for freedom, racial advancement, and social transformation in Cuba. In 1898, three years after Marti's death the American Government declared war with Spain, and within the same year Spain had surrendered and relinquished Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam to America. The loss of both Marti and Maceo and American involvement in the American-Spanish War were unforeseen events that had a tremendous impact on revolutionary leaders in both Cuba and New York. Furthermore, the sinking of the Maine in February of 1898, led to the invasion by both Puerto Rico and Cuba. (11)
These unanticipated events caused a lot of tension amongst Puerto Rican and Cuban nationalists and exiled revolutionaries Cubans who immigrated to New York. The young Schomburg became very disillusioned with the nationalist revolutionary party, and on August 2, 1898, participated in his last meeting, listening to the frustration and dismal hopes of this political movement. Furthermore, James explains that: "Schomburg was also appalled by the moral deterioration of the Cuban nationalist movement in the absence of Marti and Maceo, and the overt racism that had come to the …