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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.

Events

Black Arts, Black Muslims: Race, Religion, and Culture

Speaker: Ellen McLarney, Ph.D., Duke University

Recent, cutting edge scholarship on Black Power and its “spiritual sister” the Black Arts Movement chronicles an important era in the ongoing struggle for racial justice in the United States. This literature, however, does not fully account for the catalytic role played by Islamic mobilization, Islamic movements, and Islamic arts in what is now known as the “civil rights era.” Islamic commitments are equated with a retrograde and reactionary black nationalism systematically understood as violent, racist, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic—in short, as produced by the context they were trying to resist. A number of poets, writers, artists, musicians, and activists converted in the 1960s and 1970s bearing eloquent witness to deeper reasons for their identification with Islam, testimonies woven into an extensive body of poetry, drama, autobiographies, essays, music, and art. Black Arts, Black Muslims charts the development of an Islamically inflected arts, music, and poetics that gave expression to a black cultural sensibility, creating solidarity in a community under siege.

Ellen McLarney is the current director of Duke’s Center for Middle East Studies and the interim director for Duke’s Islamic Studies Center. Ellen’s book Soft Force: Women in Egypt’s Islamic Awakening was in 2015 published by Princeton University Press in their Muslim Politics series. An associate professor of Arabic Literature and Culture in the Department of Asian and Middle East Studies, Ellen has published in journals like Social Text, Camera Obscura, boundary2, and the International Journal of Middle East Studies. A Humanities fellow at Stanford in their Department of Religious Studies and a Hurford Family Fellow at the National Humanities Center, she has also received two Fulbright awards and a number of other grants. She has a secondary appointment in Gender, Feminism, and Sexuality Studies and is co-editor of the Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies.

This presentation is sponsored by the John Hope Franklin Center, the Duke Islamic Studies Center, and the Duke Middle East Studies Center. A light lunch will be served. Parking is available in nearby Trent Rd. and Erwin Rd. parking decks. The series provides 1-hour parking vouchers to guests.