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The Afro Latino who redefined how Black history is remembered

Arturo Schomburg's experiences as an Afro Puerto Rican at the turn of the century influenced his approach to rescuing and preserving Black history.

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg is regarded as one of the foundational figures of Black history in the United States, with one of the nation's most important research and cultural institutions named after him.

Yet his legacy goes beyond the work he did as a historian, writer and collector of global Black art and historical materials.

Image: Arturo Alfonso Schomburg
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / NYPL

By identifying as a Black and Puerto Rican, Schomburg's acknowledgment of his diverse heritage helped him earn a global understanding of Black identity — a view he implemented in his approach to rescuing and preserving Black history — while he recognized the way Blackness had been erased, including in the Caribbean and Latin America.

To a certain extent, “this is what we still see happening,” said scholar Vanessa K. Valdés, as the erasing of Blackness and Black history remains an ongoing issue when retelling U.S., Caribbean and Latin American history. It's a concern many Latinos, particularly from younger generations, are looking to address.

Born in Puerto Rico in 1874, the son of a Black mother from the Danish West Indies and a father of German descent, Schomburg noted that he grew up not knowing that the most famous 18th-century Puerto Rican painter, José Campeche, was Afro Puerto Rican like him.

The realization gave Schomburg, who died in 1938, a glimpse of "the extent of the erasure" of Black people's histories across the world, according to Valdés, the author of “Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.”

"He talks about being in Puerto Rico and not knowing the history of people of his race as a little boy," Valdés told NBC News.

In her book, Valdés references a Schomburg essay from 1934 that provides one of the earliest sketches of Campeche written in English. In it, Schomburg highlights how “white Spaniards deliberately concealed Campeche’s African heritage, all the while celebrating his accomplishments.”

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg at age 4.
Arturo Alfonso Schomburg at age 4.Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / NYPL

“It is a measure of, to my mind, the extent of white supremacy, global white supremacy,” Valdés, who is also the interim dean of Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York, said.

Schomburg dedicated most of his adult life to recovering and preserving Black history — eventually becoming one of world’s leading collectors of Black literature, slave narratives, artwork, and diasporic materials, according to the New York Public Library.

These collections live in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, in New York City.

"It is such a jewel of Harlem, " Valdés said. "We have the premier archive about global Black culture here in New York City."

'What slavery took away'

After moving to New York City in 1891, his work made Schomburg a prominent figure during the Harlem Renaissance, which took place between the 1920s and 1930s.

During that period, many African Americans from the South and Black people from the Caribbean migrated to northern American cities, seeking economic and creative opportunities.

People who study the Harlem Renaissance know about Schomburg's famous essay from 1925, "The Negro Digs Up His Past." In it, he argues in favor of recovering and preserving the histories of Black people. "History must restore what slavery took away," he said, "for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generations must repair and offset," he wrote.

Schomburg explained in his essay "that when people of African heritage demonstrate their excellence, they are deemed exceptional and then they are removed from the rest of the race,” Valdés said, describing a practice that in the case of Campeche, effectively separated his racial identity from his historic, artistic achievements.

A roadmap for Black, multicultural identity

Early in her research of Schomburg’s life, Valdés came across this “other narrative that he betrayed his Puerto Rican identity by claiming Blackness.”

“That was curious to me, because at the end of the day, for those of us who are Afro descendants and are Latino, those two are one and the same,” Valdés, who is a Black Puerto Rican, said.

A quarter of all U.S. Latinos identified as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean or as being of African descent with roots in Latin America, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey.

Yet many Afro Latinos still struggle with identifying as Black. In Pew’s survey, only 18 percent of Afro-Latinos said they were Black, compared to 39 percent who identified as white. Almost a quarter (24 percent) said their race was “Hispanic” — which is an ethnicity, not a race.

This can, in part, be attributed to cycles of internalized racism stemming from unresolved generational trauma tied to the transatlantic slave trade, scholars like Valdés and others have argued.

Artist Aaron Douglas, left, shows Arturo Alfonso Schomburg his painting, "Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers" in 1934.
Artist Aaron Douglas, left, shows Arturo Alfonso Schomburg his painting, "Aspects of Negro Life: Song of the Towers" in 1934.Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / NYPL

Despite not having a college education or much money and being a Black man with an accent in Jim Crow New York, "he showed us the model on how to question traditional renderings of history," Valdés said.

As more Latinos continue confronting racism and anti-blackness within their own communities on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice protests triggered by George Floyd's killing in 2020, Schomburg's work provides a roadmap for people to embrace their multiracial roots by chipping away the white supremacy lens in which history is often remembered and retold.

"The most radical thing that one can do, in any field, is to focus on Black history," Valdés said. "What if we'd learned U.S. history, the history of all the Americas... what if we learned history like that?"

The 2020 census showed early indications of how Latinos are grappling with America's racial reckoning by looking for opportunities to embrace their Indigenous and Black roots — challenging the history behind pan-ethnic terms such as “Hispanic” and “Latino," which anchor the ethnic identity to Latin America’s colonial period, when white Europeans mixed with Indigenous people, Black slaves from Africa and Asians.

After the Census Bureau improved the way it asked Hispanics about their racial and ethnic identity, the number of Latinos identifying as multiracial soared dramatically, from 3 million to 20.3 million over the past decade.

“Schomburg did what he could to educate himself and to be around people who were also involved in educating each other,” Valdés said, just like social and digital media is currently changing how history is remembered, as more people share their stories on these platforms.

"It is incredibly powerful," Valdés said. "So, in that way, also, that legacy continues."

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