On Senor Schomburg, Black America and Me

Arturo Schomburg II
A Visionary Pan-Africanist Bibliophile

It is well neigh impossible to assess the importance of the contribution the Afro-Puerto Rican Pan-Africanist bibliophile Arturo Schomburg made to the growth of culture and consciousness of Afro-Americans in general, having inspired seminal scholars and teachers like Dr. John Hendirk Clarke and Joel A. Rogers.  However I owe much of my career as an intellectual and political activist to the efforts of the great Senor Schomburg.

When I was a lonely airman stationed on a nuclear strike base in the 91st Strato-Bomber Wing of the US Strategic Air Command, whose mission was the nuclear destruction of Soviet Russia, I was given two books by my First Sergeant” One Hundred Amazing Facts about the Negro with Complete Proof” and “From Superman to Man,” both by the great Jamaican Historian Joel A. Rogers.

These books changed my life! J. A. Rogers continuously referred to the something called “The Schomburg Collection” in Harlem.  When I got out of the Air Force all I wanted to do was visit this place and see if the proof of Roger’s marvelous claims could indeed be found there.  I spent the next year practically camped out in the Schomburg, which was located on 135th street in Harlem, next door to its present location.

I would come up to New York from Philly and stay with my uncle Jimmy in Brooklyn every chance I got and spend my days rummaging through those archives that contained the records of the greatness of my race world-wide.  Among the many treasures I discovered there was the other works of J.A. Rogers – especially his multi-volume tomes: The World’s Great Men of Color from 3,000 BC to 1946 AD, Nature Knows no Color Line, Sex and Race, and Africa’s Gifts to America.

Laboring among the book stacks of the Schomburg Collection under the able tutelage of the learned and dedicated librarian Ernest Kaiser, who acted as if each text, rare manuscript, record and picture collection or newspaper file was a sacred gift to the black community, led to my becoming a featured radio lecturer on black history on “The Listening Post,” produced and hosted by the legendary Joe Rainey and broadcast over WDAS in Philly, a program on which Malcolm X regularly appeared.

From there I was heard by Queen Mother Moore, a comrade of the magnificent Puerto Rican revolutionary Loita Lebron – who took me under her wings and tutored me in the art and science of political struggle. I was also heard by the Reverend Doctor Leon Sullivan – an activist Baptist preacher whom Minister Farrakhan calls “The Lion of Zion.”  Doctor Sullivan hired me to teach a black history course in the basement of his church.  It was in those sessions that I met Max Stanford aka Dr. Muhammad Ahmed, who convinced me to join him in founding the Revolutionary Action Movement – RAM – in Philly during 1962.  This was the first organization to openly advocate armed struggle in the US and would give birth to the Black Panthers of Oakland when a RAM cadre recruited Bobby Seales and Huey Newton into our ranks.

When Dr. Sullivan founded the Opportunities Industrialization Centers as part of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” created by the passage Economic Opportunity Act of 1965, he hired me to design a “Minority History” component to the curriculum of the adult education program.  Having grown up in West Virginia reading the texts of the pioneering historian of black America Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a fellow West Virginian and Harvard trained scholar who founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Reverend Sullivan was convinced that oppressed peoples needed to know their history to fortify themselves for the freedom struggle.

The program I developed, which was mainly Afro-American and African history, but contained units on Afro-Latinos and Native Americans, was adopted by 100 OIC centers across America. This led to my being hired by school boards to lecture to school teachers about the rationale and methods for teaching black history.

This work led to my becoming a founding member of the WEB DuBois Department of Black Studies – with a Pan-African perspective in the spirit of Arturo Schomburg  –  the first free standing, degree granting, Black Studies Department in the World!   Hence, needless to say, I can never pay my debts to Senor Schomburg.

However my longtime friend and former neighbor, the late Max Bond, a brilliant architect who took his degree from Harvard at 19 years old, made an effort toward paying that debt on behalf of the Afro-American people when he designed the new building that now houses the Schomburg Center.  “I want to design a building that flows like a John Coltrane solo” he told me.  And as far as I can tell ….he did!  Check it out…it’s good for your mind, body and soul!

Max Bond’s Schomburg Center

Schomburg Center - outside

An exterior view

Inside the Schomburg Collection

Schomburg Center Inside

A quiet place to contemplate the past, present and future of the Black World

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
June 9, 2013

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