Vanessa Valdés

Arturo Schomburg and the Jim Crow South

This story was featured on Duke’s Council on Race and Ethnicity, https://sites.duke.edu/dcore/tag/vanessa-k-valdes/.

Written by Camille Jackson

On Wednesday, Vanessa K. Valdés of The City College of New York, presented her research on Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, whose personal collection became the foundation for the Harlem-based and world-renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Valdés is the author of “Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg,” only the second full-length biography.

During her talk, “Building an International Archive in the Jim Crow South: Arturo Schomberg at Fisk University,” Valdés highlighted the collector’s global vision for his collection as well as the importance of access to the material.

The lunchtime talk was the latest installment of “Wednesdays at the Center,” held at the John Hope Franklin Center, which features a different speaker each week throughout the semester.

Valdés, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese, said that Schomburg, a Black Puerto Rican, helped establish Fisk University’s Africana collection in Nashville, now named the John Hope and Aurelia Franklin Library.

“Most have no idea about the man himself,” said Valdés, who pursued her graduate degree in Nashville. There is only one biography of Schomburg and it was published in 1989, she said.

Valdés and Neal

The Carnegie Foundation bought Schomburg’s personal collection for $10k which he used to travel across Europe and further develop his collection. However, he donated much of his work without compensation.

In Nashville, Thomas E. Jones was president of Fisk when Schomburg began assembling the library in 1929. He worked alongside his good friend, sociologist Charles S. Johnson, to replicate what he had accomplished in New York, building a black archive in Fisk University’s Cravath Hall, complete with a reading room.

“At the time, black people were steered toward vocational schools and not necessarily reading for pleasure,” Valdés said. Under Schomburg, Fisk established a reading room to “inculcate a desire” in students to read for pleasure.

“Being an active member of society meant being knowledgeable. He was creating spaces of liberation,” Valdés said. Schomburg spoke through his collection, highlighting moments of black independence and responding to U.S. hegemony in the Caribbean.

The Fisk collection concentrated on presence of people of African descent internationally, taking on a global character, telling the story of blacks in Europe and the Caribbean. There were 140 books when Schomburg arrived and more than 4,000 by the time he left Fisk. His efforts were not replicated at other schools until decades after his death, she said.

Johnson, the first black president of Fisk, acknowledged Schomburg’s “generosity and foresight” in curating books for the university’s then-named Race Relations Institute.

“Johnson was trying to get Schomburg to write his book but he wasn’t interested in that. He only wanted to disseminate his work,” Valdés said. “It’s important to consider different modes of scholarship and knowledge production. Establishing the collection, made it unequivocal that black folks were worthy of study and international analysis.”

The event was sponsored by the Center for Arts, Digital Culture and Entrepreneurship at Duke.