Harlem's Schomburg Collection: treasure of black history

Harlem is commonly known as the capital of black America, and its resources appropriately include what could be considered black America's national library.

One of the preeminent collections of black history was begun here in 1924 at a neighborhood branch of the New York Public Library. Now called the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, it expanded this past September into a new block-long, five-story building on one of Harlem's main thorough- fares, Lenox Avenue.

Blacks began moving into Harlem shortly before World War I, and by the 1920s the largest black community in the nation was here. Black writers and artists found themselves so stimulated in this new environment that they released the burst of creativity called in literary histories the Harlem Renaissance.

One result was a stream of visitors besieging the library for information on black culture. A librarian responded by starting to gather materials, and the following year the library opened a Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints.

A giant step forward came in 1926 when Urban League officials persuaded the Carnegie Corporation to buy the collection of Arthur A. Schomburg and give it to the Harlem library.

Mr. Schomburg was a black man who was born in Puerto Rico and came to New York as a teen-ager. He worked 20 years in a bank, but only to pay expenses while he pursued his real interest. As a youngster, he told friends, he sought to learn about the history of his people only to have a teacher tell him, "The Negro has no history."

Mr. Schomburg spent the rest of his life accumulating evidence to refute that erroneous statement. By 1926, he had 5,000 books, 3,000 manuscripts, 2,000 etchings and portraits, and thousands of pamphlets.

Eventually, Mr. Schomburg was able to turn his avocation into a vocation, and after serving for a time at Fisk University's Negro Collection, he returned to New York in 1932 as curator of the division that included his collection. Upon his death in 1938, it was named for him.

For the past generation Jean Blackwell Hutson has been in charge of the collection, though this year she was given a new post that involves work with black-related materials in all the research units of the New York Public Library.

In an interview, Mrs. Hutson recalled that she worked briefly with Mr. Schomburg the year before his death. A native of Florida, she had come to New York to secure a degree at Barnard College and then study library science at Columbia University. But her eager young professionalism clashed with Mr. Schomburg's personal style.

"He arranged the books according to the color of their bindings and according to size," she said. "I stayed late one night and rearranged them according to the Dewey decimal system. So I was banished."

Mrs. Hutson then worked in other branches until she was brought back in 1948 to fill in for a new curator who was taking a six- month leave. The other curator never returned, and Mrs. Hutson remained.

"In the early years, we used to have forums that brought many people into the library," she said. "But in the McCarthy era our free discussions became suspect."

"Once we had a birthday party for W. E. B. DuBois, but it brought so many Cummunists and anti-Communists and FBI agents looking for Communists that we couldn't have any intellectual exchange."

Other developments came along to give the Schomburg library an enhanced role, however. One was the end of colonialism in Africa and rise of newly independent states, which gave black people in both Africa and America a renewed sense of ethnic pride.

"Because of the way colonialism worked, often we knew more here about the total African experience than the Africans did," Mrs. Hutson said. "They would know only about their own country, and many of the Africans who became leaders after independence had gotten a broader understanding through studies in the United States."

One user of the Schomburg collection was a student from Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah. Mrs. Hutson said he had written that he sold fish while living in New York, and although he always carried the smell with him, he was never turned away from the Schomburg.

Later, as president of Ghana, he brought Mrs. Hutson over for a year to assist the University of Ghana in developing its library.

The 1960s brought the most active phase of the civil-rights movement, and the accompanying movement to introduce black studies into college curricula. As a result, the Schomburg suddenly had several times as many users. "It was a little hysterical for a while," Mrs. Hutson said.

Though extensive black collections also exist at such universities as Howard and Northwestern, the Schomburg's location in New York made it convenient for the publishing industry. More writers were treating black topics in books and magazine articles, and they frequently showed up at the Schomburg. Editors, newly aware of a need to include black illustrative materials in previously all-white history textbooks and other publications, made use of its print and photograph collection.

More recently, Mrs. Hutson said, the popularity of "Roots" by Alex Haley, a Schomburg user, brought many people interested in genealogy.

Mrs. Hutson had also taken steps to get the Schomburg catalog published -- nine volumes in 1962, and supplements later. The publisher, G. K. Hall of Boston, found it sold surprisingly well, both in the United States and abroad, she said, and colleges used it as a reference tool in building their own library resources for black studies.

Treasures of the Schomburg include such items as Richard Wright's manuscript for "Native Son" with his handwritten revisions, a 1573 volume published in Spain by the African poet Juan Latino, and field notes and memoranda produced by Gunnar Myrdal and his colleagues for the seminal work on American racism, "An American Dilemma."

But more important is the comprehensive quality of the collection, which includes materials about all phases of black life in the United States, the Carribbean, Africa, and other places blacks have lived.

Mr. Schomburg built "an apologist's library," Mrs. Hutson said. He thought black people needed to develop pride in the achievements of their people, and that they would receive better treatment if white people became aware of those achievements. So he concentrated on black heroes to show the positive side of black life. But later curators broadened the collection to include the bitter side as well.

Today the researcher finds 75,000 volumes by and about black people, including works in many African languages. In addition, the library offers 40, 000 prints and photographs, files of black periodicals, and a wealth of clippings and pamphlets.

"i think the vertical file clippings are one of our greatest resources," said acting Schomburg director John Miller in an interview. "One of our staff members, Ernest Kaiser, has dedicated a lifetime to scanning daily papers and magazines and putting clippings under subject headings.This is material you might find yourself through laborious search, but here you find it all brought together."

Another resource of the Schomburg is its audio-visual department, which was housed far away in another building but is now reunited with the print materials. This department includes 10,000 phonograph records and 2,000 tapes of black music and musicians, plus many oral history tapes and filmed interviews.

The Schomburg Center is not meant to serve as an art museum, Mr. Miller said, but through the years it has accumulated a considerable quantity of art and artifacts related to blacks, and the new center provides more adequate space for maintaining and exhibiting this material.

When Mrs. Hutson took over direction of the Schomburg, it had a staff of six. Now it has a staff of 40 and a budget of more than $1 million a year. She finds it hard to believe the present good fortune of a library that was "always to poor." But at least adequate facilities now exist, including space for a laboratory to use in preserving fragile works.

The New York Public Library system is privately operated, but depends heavily on government aid -- city, state, and federal -- that may be quickly diminished in times of budget deficits. But the Schomburg has gained sufficient recognition that it can count on a hearing.

Certain projects are financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities. A $3.7 million federal grant made under the Public Works Employment Act of 1976 financed its new building. And it benefits from the support of a group of private citizens organized in 1971 as the Schomburg Corporation.

Mr. Miller expressed confidence that the reputation won by the Schomburg will ensure that it continues to grow in importance. EVen blacks living elsewhere, he said, look to Harlem as their "intellectual home." And when they think of that home, they think of the Schomburg Center.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.