Current Projects

    Arturo Alfonso Schomburg  1874 - 1938

                                                                  Dean Schomburg

Sept 12, 2011

     Important new items that offer a rare glimpse of the private life of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg  are being reviewed and considered for public display at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, compliments of Arturo’s great grandson Lance Thomas.   Mr. Thomas is the son of Wesley Thomas, whose mother was Dolores Schomburg Thomas.  She was Arturo’s only daughter, with Wesley being one of her two sons (the other is Wayne).   Lance Thomas, who lives in Maryland, has always maintained his interest in the activities of the Schomburg Center but because of the distance and travel involved could not regularly participate in any activities.  When he saw that a new director had been named at the Schomburg Center, and that Aysha Schomburg, President of the Schomburg Corporation, had been a key person on the N.Y. Public Library’s search committee, he contacted her.

 He explained that his grandmother, Dolores, had entrusted him with a range of Arturo’s personal articles and artifacts, including correspondence, a passport, a middle school certificate (dated 1888), and other items which he had saved and preserved as best he could, and offered to meet with her and further discuss  the possibilities of bringing these items to public view.  Her response, of course, was an enthusiastic “yes!”   The meeting took place in April 15th of 2011 at a restaurant in Manhattan.  Lance, now 46 years old, is a part time college mathematics instructor and is also employed by the Washington (D.C.) Metro Area Transportation Authority, where he is in training for a superintendent's position.

 He is soft spoken and gentle in demeanor, and we took the opportunity to get acquainted and to bring him up to date on the activities of the Schomburg Corporation.  It was an inspirational meeting for me, because I know Lance’s father Wesley, whom I had not seen in about 15 years, and his uncle Wayne, whom I had talked to recently by telephone but also had not seen since their mother’s funeral in  December of 1994. In fact,  Lance’s uncle Chester Thomas was the attorney who handled the closing on the house I purchased in Brooklyn in 1975 (I never had so much fun writing checks…Uncle Chet  kept us all laughing throughout the entire closing).   The meeting with Lance was entirely fascinating and productive.  He promised to return to N.Y. City with a sample of Arturo’s personal items, and he did.  My daughter Aysha Schomburg, Esq. and Lance reconvened at the Schomburg Center on August 10th, with Director Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad (right) to review the items. 

  Lance came with a backpack loaded with typewritten letters to and from the likes of Claude McKay, Bruce Grit (John Edward Bruce), Alain Locke, Carter G. Woodson and many other of Mr. Schomburg’s contemporaries and leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance.  Most of the letters were typewritten and all were dated. One of the letters was written by Langston Hughes to Dolores Schomburg inviting her to attend one of his functions.  Other correspondence was strictly personal which Arturo wrote to family members, and still others were directed to dignitaries and leading political and cultural figures in Haiti and Cuba.  The certificate from the middle school is in fragile condition, and Lance acknowledged that it is in urgent need of expert preservation…one of the reasons he is anxious to have it and other documents properly processed.   Arturo’s Puerto Rican passport is in reasonably good shape.

Lance intends to present these materials because, as he explained "my grandmother would have wanted to make sure that people remember Arturo and the wonderful work to which he had dedicated his life".   Lance also said he's concerned that upon entering the Schomburg Center there are no images or other presence of the founder, and he would like that corrected.  In my telephone conversations with Wayne Thomas I learned that he too had been entrusted by his mother with some of Arturo’s personal items.   He plans to inventory his collection, which also includes the family bible, and let me know more precisely what it consists of.   Wayne is in the process of relocating from Virginia to Florida, and promises to itemize his collection as soon as he can locate the boxes and begin sorting things out.

It’s no surprise to me that Aunt Dolores assigned herself the task of “keeper of the flame”.  Whenever I would visit her at her house in Queens, N.Y., she would delve into her archives and pull something out for me to take home. She inherited the same passion for collecting and preserving important items and articles that her father displayed throughout his life.  She would give me pictures of my father, Carlos Placido Schomburg, including one taken at her wedding, which was a beautiful and elaborate affair.   She would give me his life insurance documents for safekeeping.  She passed along a copy of a letter dated March 1934 to Arturo from Claude Barnett, director of  the Associated Negro Press thanking him for sending a review copy of a book written by Nancy Cunard whose father was heir to the Cunard Line shipping businesses.  Ms. Cunard was a political activist and had edited a massive Negro Anthology.

Aunt Delores also gave me a copy of a letter Arturo wrote to her describing the Anthology as her “Magnus Opus”.   As Wayne explained to me, “Mom was always so proud of Arturo’s work, and her friends would send her newspaper and magazine articles about him.  She always had her antennae up for new information or opinions about him and his work, and wanted everyone to be aware of the importance of the things he had accomplished.”    That task has now been embraced by Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad at the Schomburg Center, who has reviewed the items and will make plans on how to proceed on bringing them to public light.

This is all very exciting for those of us who appreciate what Arturo Schomburg was all about, and would welcome this extraordinary new window these items provide into his contacts and discussions with many of the organizations and individuals with whom he was involved, and whose advice and counsel he sought as he strove to bring wider acceptance and affirmation of black scholarship to the public sphere. We at the Schomburg Corporation (which Lance Thomas has joined as our newest member) have a truly exceptional opportunity to fulfill part of our mission to “aid and assist in the conservation, preservation and maintenance and assist in the future growth of the Schomburg Collection.”  Lance has expressed his willingness to work through the Corporation in presenting these new treasures to the Schomburg Center for eventual public display.  We are extremely grateful for his consideration, and we offer him our heartfelt thanks.

 Dean Schomburg majored in African & African American Studies at Fordham University and earned his Master's degree in Communication from  the Rutgers Graduate School of Communication & Information Studies. He is a grandson of Arturo Schomburg.

©D. Schomburg 2011

Op-Ed: Harlem pedestrian safety
Posted: Saturday, August 4, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 1:04 pm, Thu Aug 2, 2012.
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The New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) begins the rollout this week of improvements to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard after more than a year of study, meetings with Community Board 10 and input from 25 civic, commercial, residential and religious groups and organizations. The improvements will include dedicated left turn lanes to reduce excessive lane changes, extended medians to increase pedestrian safety, retimed pedestrian countdown signals that increase street crossing time to 25 seconds and wider parking lanes to provide additional safety for vehicular traffic.

There have been 12 pedestrian fatalities on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard over the past six years, seven of which were the result of vehicle collisions in the left lane.

The DOT’s ponderous bureaucratic processes grind ever so slowly, and not always efficiently, but are thorough none the less. Input was solicited from a wide variety of stakeholders, and the agency’s plans were consistently reconfigured in response to many community concerns. The Harlem community has always been fiercely protective of its cultural heritage, and history has proven this vigilance to be critically important in preserving Harlem’s cultural ecology.

As expected, the DOT’s conceptual design for Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard has not been totally embraced by all stakeholders. Some critics believe the pedestrian safety improvements somehow degrade the boulevard’s historical significance and/or its integrity. I would argue that pedestrian safety is crucial to Harlem’s nourishment and cultural dynamism. Absence of such safety is grossly disparaging to the area’s historical legacy because access to Harlem’s cultural treasures and commerce may be inhibited.

Consensus has clearly been reached by many guardians of Harlem’s legacy, including the Abyssinian Development Corporation, Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement and the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, among others, that Harlem’s legacy is in no way confounded by this belated attention to pedestrian safety.

Imagine the outburst of (righteous) indignation had the DOT not included Harlem in its pedestrian safety and mobility capital projects following implementation of similar projects at locations in Staten Island, Queens Boulevard (which led to zero pedestrian fatalities in 2011), the Brooklyn Waterfront Greenway and the expansion of the congestion management system to improve traffic conditions in Midtown, among others.

I suspect that Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who knew more than a little about constructive criticism, might say “well done“ in response to the improvements to his boulevard.

Dean Schomburg is a grandson of bibliophile Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, founder of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Launch meeting of Schomburg Corporation website redesign committee

(L-R) S. Biddle, D. Schomburg, A. Rocker, Ty Martin, J. Lemieux, D. Johnson


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