Guide to the Research Collections



The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (formerly The Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and History), located at 103 West 135th Street, is one of the world's largest, most comprehensive, and most heavily used repositories of records documenting the experience of the peoples of African origin and descent.1 Its collections, international in scope and interest, include more than 58,000 volumes, along with phonodiscs, tape recordings, prints, posters, paintings, sculptures, clippings, periodicals, pamphlets, sheet music, and newspapers, as well as large holdings of manuscript and archival records.2


The present center assumed international prominence as long ago as 1926 with the addition of the personal library of Arthur A. Schomburg. It is therefore fitting to preface a guide to specific holdings with some discussion of how Mr. Schomburg's bibliographical interests provided the impetus for the development of this center for research in black culture. During the early 1920s, a period later referred to as the "Harlem Renaissance,".3 the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library accommodated a growing public interest in what was then described as "Negro writing, art, and music." Due to the efforts of a Citizens' Committee, the branch's extensive reference collection received gifts and loans from the private libraries of figures in the black community as notable as John E. Bruce, Louise Latimer, Hubert H. Harrison, George Young, Dr. Charles D. Martin, and Arthur A. Schomburg. On May 3, 1925, the cooperative work of Miss Ernestine Rose, head of the 135th Street Branch, and the Citizens' Committee, resulted in the official opening of the Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints. In outlining the division's plans to the press, Miss Rose pointed out that there were similar collections in the Library of Congress, and at institutions such as the Tuskegee Institute and Howard University, in certain large city reference libraries, and in a few private libraries. The 135th Street Branch Library, however, had the potential and public interest to become had the largest and most valuable such collection in the world.

In 1926 the new division assumed international prominence with the addition of the personal library of Arthur A. Schomburg. Consisting of more than 5,000 books, 3,000 manuscripts, 2,000 etchings, and several thousand pamphlets, this collection was purchased from Mr. Schomburg by the Carnegie Corporation, at the suggestion of the Urban League. It was presented to the New York Public Library with the understanding that it would be housed in the 135th Street Branch as a reference collection.

Arthur A. Schomburg was a Puerto Rican of African descent. Born in San Juan in 1874, he was educated in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands; he came to New York City in 1891, where he was employed for many years by the Bankers' Trust Company. Schomburg was an expert and zealous collector of works dealing with African and Afro-American history. Through the years he searched book markets in Europe, North Africa, Latin America, and the United States seeking out the books, documents, pamphlets, and art objects which would offer the concrete evidence that the black man indeed has a long and glorious heritage in which his descendants could justifiably take pride.

Among the treasures he unearthed were Ad Catholicum, Juan Latino's Latin verse (Granada, 1573), and his book on the Escorial (1576). Schomburg also acquired copies of the works of Jupiter Hammon, America's first black poet ( An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York, 1787); manuscript poems and early editions of the works of Phillis Wheatley of Boston, an American slave; copies of the Almanacs (1792 and 1793) compiled by Benjamin Banneker, an African-American whose unusual abilities had been employed by Thomas Jefferson and others; the scrapbook of Ira Aldridge, the Shakespearean actor who won fame in Europe during the nineteenth century; various editions of William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter; A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, the first novel by a black American; George Washington

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William's History of the Negro in America from 1619 to 1880 (New York, 1883), said to be the first such history produced in America by an African-American to receive serious attention by white scholars. The list goes on to include rare biographies and autobiographies, texts of sermons, scrapbooks, memoirs, and other items documenting the black man's history and continuing contribution to modern civilization.

In 1932 a grant from the Carnegie Corporation enabled the New York Public Library to hire Arthur A. Schomburg as the first curator of his cherished collection. After his death in 1938, the Negro Division was officially designated the Schomburg Collection. Under Schomburg's successors, the scope and activities of the collection have greatly expanded, with the inclusion of lecture series, exhibits, scheduled programs on special occasions, and the annual Honor Roll in Race Relations Awards. Since its inception, the Schomburg Collection had been a part of the New York Public Library's Branch Library system. In the spring of 1972 the collection became part of the Research Libraries. This action changed the Schomburg's organizational and administrative relationship to the rest of the library from that of a neighborhood branch with a special subjectarea concentration to that of a full-fledged reference and research center. In December 1972 the collection was officially designated the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.


The curators of the prized Schomburg Collection built upon the spirit and tradition of Arthur A. Schomburg and the others who had participated in the movement for a Black Collection in the early 1920s. Today the Schomburg Center stands as a living monument to their efforts and concerns. It has expanded from the original nucleus of reference volumes to a present book stock of over 58,000.4 In addition it includes a wealth of non-book and even non-textual resources which are of immeasurable value to the scholar.

Of special interest are the histories of ancient African kingdoms--Ghana, Mele, Songhai, Benin--names which have become familiar since independent states have emerged as the "new" Africa. Recent changes in the Caribbean area have brought into prominence Schomburg's extensive holdings in West Indian history, social conditions, poetry, fiction, and folklore. The collection of Haitian literature and history is unique in its comprehensiveness. Other items which suggest the Schomburg Center's holdings include the 81 manuscript volumes of the field notes and memoranda used by Gunnar Myrdal in writing An American Dilemma; Claude McKay's manuscripts; the Harry A. Williamson library on the Negro in Masonry; The Sound of Africa, a set of 210 long-playing records of African folk music, indexed by tribe, type of song, and instruments; and a file of some 800 newspapers on microfilm offering a reflection of historical and contemporary Negro thought and life, over more than a century. Significant books and manuscripts from the center's holdings in American literature are described in chapter 23.

The following list is presented in an attempt to illustrate the size and diversity of Schomburg Center materials:

Clipping File

The center maintains a file on some 9,000 subject headings. Included are clippings from newspapers and magazines, playbills, leaflets, pamphlets, book reviews, correspondence, typescripts, and programmes.

Linguistic Materials

Students of African languages will find especially valuable resources in the Schomburg Center. There are notable holdings in some 60 indigenous languages as diverse as Adangme, Nyanja, Sotho, Swahili, and Zulu; the language held in the most strength (59 works) is Xhosa. More than 140 African languages and dialects are documented by dictionaries, grammars, and general studies in English and the European languages (the largest number of these in French). Among extensive phonodisc holdings in the center, the important The Sound of Africa series contains 3,000 items in 128 languages which are of linguistic as well as musical significance.

Periodicals and Newspapers

The center subscribes to more than 200 newspapers and magazines. Black and interracial publications are kept in their entirety either in bound volumes or microfilm copies; general publications are clipped, and relevant articles incorporated into the clipping file. Among the periodicals received regularly are Parade from Rhodesia, Nigeria Magazine, Ethiopia Observer, and Jeune Afrique, valuable for their sketches of contemporary African personalities and life styles; Africa, a scholarly publication of the International African Institute; Africa Report and A Current Bibliography on African Affairs, both dealing with current affairs in Africa and the United States' relations with African nations. The file of black newspapers on microfilm offers a reflection of contemporary and historical black thought and life. African newspapers, such as the West African Pilot, East African Standard, Evening News (Ghana), and Central Africa Post, are now available on microfilm. The Afro-American newspaper collection includes long, complete runs of newspapers dating from 1827 through the First World War, such as the California Eagle, Cleveland Gazette, and Savannah Tribune. Current issues of black newspapers giving national coverage are microfilmed at the end of each year.


The microfilming program at the Schomburg Center has made available copies of some of the center's material to schools and libraries all over the world. It has also provided copies of rare and fragile materials, thus helping to preserve original documents by limiting their direct use. The program has further added to the holdings of the center by acquiring complete runs of black newspapers as well as microfilm copies of the official legislative gazettes of a number of African countries.

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Motion Picture Film

A grant from the Urban Center at Columbia University provided the center with the series of more than 100 filmed lectures "Black Heritage: A History of Afro-Americans" which was produced in cooperation with CBS-TV. The grant also marked the beginning of the projected Archives of Black Films, an attempt to document the contributions to and involvement of black people in the motion picture industry.

Phonograph and Tape Recordings

Over the years a sizable collection of phonograph recordings of early blues and jazz, as well as African and West Indian folk music, has developed. Recent grants have enabled the staff to expand the holdings to include contemporary "Soul Music" recordings, prose and poetry readings, and documentary productions as well. Hundreds of reels of tape recordings have been collected. These include poetry readings, lecture series, speeches, musical programs, interviews, and the like.


The center maintains a photograph collection of some 15,000 indexed items plus many thousands more unassorted. These include material from the "Harlem on My Mind" Exhibition, picture files from the National Urban League, Farm Security Administration, National Youth Administration, and New York Amsterdam News, as well as general donations from interested individuals.

Manuscripts and Archives

Arthur A. Schomburg did not limit his collecting to books and published works. At the time his private library became a part of the New York Public Library it included some 3,000 historical manuscripts. These consisted of addresses, sermons, letters, and poems by such personalities as Alexander Crummell, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Lemuel Haynes, Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Edward W. Blyden, and many others. There were also the signed army orders of Toussaint L'Ouverture, the Haitian military genius who drove Napoleon's armies into the sea; slave certificates of registration; bills of sale for the purchase of slaves; a parchmentbound Spanish manuscript by Soley Balsas (1757) recounting in poetry the life of an African girl who became St. Theresa of Salamanca; and many other treasures.

In 1936 the New York City Historical Records Survey, a WPA project, undertook a program to compile the first complete calendar of the manuscript holdings of the Schomburg Collection, the initial stage of which was completed in 1938. The Calendar of the Manuscripts in the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature contained complete entries for some 2,271 record items. These were arranged in eight collections (West Indian, 1716-1817; Slavery, 1700-1890; Abolition, 1787-1876; Alexander Crummell Letters, 1837-98; Alexander Crummell Sermons, 1840-97; Paul Laurence Dunbar Collection, 1892-1902; John E. Bruce Collection, 1872-1927; and Miscellaneous Letters and Papers, 1757-1918). For each item the calendar gave date, author, place, a brief summary of contents, a description of the item itself (number of pages, autograph document, typed letter signed, autograph letter, etc.), and finally each item was assigned a collection number and a calendar number. In addition to the item descriptions themselves, the Historical Records Survey compiled biographical sketches and a comprehensive index to the entire collection. The calendar itself was never published because of the advent of World War II shortly before its completion in 1942, yet it has served as an invaluable tool in locating and describing manuscript material housed in the Schomburg Center.

Between the completion of the calendar in 1942 and 1967 very little was done in the way of processing or handling manuscripts or archival records on an organized basis, with two exceptions: the Harry A. Williamson collection of Negro Masonry, and the Writers' Program study "Negroes of New York." Harry A. Williamson was a collector somewhat in the tradition of Arthur A. Schomburg. However, his driving interest was in the Black Freemasons movement. He sought to document the legitimacy of the black Prince Hall Lodges which were not recognized by the white Masons, as well as chronicle the many and varied activities of these Masons. By 1936 he had accumulated a considerable amount of material which he donated to the New York Public Library to be housed in what was still the Negro Division of the 135th Street Branch. His collection represented over thirty years of research and included such kinds of records as the proceedings of fifty-nine Grand Lodges of Prince Hall dating from 1860; proceedings of Masonic Congresses; Constitutions of thirty-one Prince Hall Grand Lodges; Masonic periodicals; and scrapbooks of newspaper clippings on Masonic activities. In total it represented the most comprehensive body of material on the black Masonic movement in the country. Between the original donation and his death in 1965, Mr. Williamson added to this collection, keeping it current and continually increasing its importance and significance.

Although the Williamson collection might be viewed as an archival record group, reflecting as it does the interests and activities of black Masonic organizations, it was decided that it should be cataloged as a special book collection and handled accordingly. In 1943 representatives of the library's central Cataloging Office, with the assistance of the Schomburg curator, drew up a classification system which employed the Dewey Decimal numbers 366.10-366.19. The same basic approach was employed in dealing with the manuscripts of the Writers' Program study of Negroes of New York. It was compiled by the workers of the Writers' Program (WPA) in New York City between 1936 and 1941, and deposited in the Schomburg Collection. The surveys analyzed such areas as housing for black people, churches, education, medicine and health, migration, sports, theatre, press, motion pictures, in addition to historical questions relating to economic developments and the development of black communities in each of the city's five boroughs. The entire study was cataloged (974.7 W) with subject entries for each of the individual surveys and cross references for many of the individual personalities treated.5

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These two instances represent the only major activities relating to the processing of manuscript and archival records in the period between 1942 and 1967. Individual documents which came into the library's possession during that period were routinely added to the still unpublished Calendar of Manuscripts. Additions to the Williamson collection were either assigned Dewey numbers under the special classification set up for them or merely placed in storage for future disposition.

Fortunately the acquisition program during the period 1942-67 was active; the collection came into possession of a number of very important bodies of records. Although there was no apparatus available for handling archival records or large manuscript collections, it was felt that it was important nevertheless that the Schomburg Collection accept these materials as they became available rather than allow them to be lost. The first major body of material to be acquired under this philosophy was the records of the National Negro Congress. This group contained not only the records of the executive secretaries of that organization, but also records relating to a number of its affiliates, namely the Joint Committee on National Recovery, Negro Industrial League, and the Negro Labor Victory Committee. The records had been deposited in the Schomburg Collection in the very late 40s and had remained virtually untouched, in their original state, for nearly two decades.

The largest single body of records accepted under this same primary concern for preservation came with the demise of the Civil Rights Congress in 1956. In the resolution officially dissolving the organization, the Civil Rights Congress empowered its past national executive director, William L. Patterson, to dispose of the records "as would best suit the interests of the American People." The material consisted not only of the congress's own records but also included sections of records inherited from several organizations which had merged to form the Civil Rights Congress. The most noteworthy of these was the International Labor Defense, an organization which is primarily remembered for its involvement in the famous Scottsboro Case.

In addition to the organizational records listed above, the Schomburg Collection found itself custodian to a number of other record groups as well. Arthur A. Schomburg himself had left a sizable collection of his own records--primarily correspondence but including unpublished manuscripts, research notes, editorials, and articles. The editors of the short-lived Negro World Digest deposited several boxes of their records; the family of William Pickens, one of the founders and officials of the NAACP, gave his personal files, some 21,000 record items; and in 1965 Dr. Hugh Smythe and his wife, both noted scholars and educators, presented many of their personal and professional papers to the Schomburg Collection just before Smythe assumed his post as United States Ambassador to Syria.

By 1967 the Schomburg Collection had in its possession several hundred thousand archival record items and manuscripts. Many of these were still in their original state--packed away in cardboard boxes or rusted metal file cabinets, or simply tied in bundles. Some were partially accessible but most were totally inaccessible. None had been thoroughly analyzed, so there was no way of knowing their full content or significance. With the heightened interest in black studies resulting from the change in emphasis away from integration as a goal in itself to one stressing instead self-identity and ethnic pride, the potential contribution of such a large body of rare and unique primary sources began to be felt. Therefore, in 1967 two concerned scholars secured a grant for the Schomburg Collection from the Ford Foundation to begin an archival program which would not only make its record resources available for study, but also would help preserve them for future generations. By the summer of 1968 the archival program had been initiated with the work on the National Negro Congress records. Since that-time over 1,000,000 record items have been processed. The records themselves include such classes of material as personal and business correspondence, minutes of meetings and conferences, manuscripts of articles and books, galley proofs of books, legal papers, certificates and diplomas, newspaper clippings, organizational publications, financial statements and ledgers, leaflets, pamphlets, petitions, texts of speeches, transcripts of court proceedings, etc. The archives are not restricted to paper documents but also include such other record forms as photographs, phonodiscs, tape recordings, engraved printing plates, X rays, card files, and motion picture film. As of September 1972, 25 major record groups had been fully processed, along with several smaller collections of materials. A number of other bodies of records have been transferred to the archives from other parts of the center; however, it was decided that full processing was not always necessary, but rather in some cases the old systems employed in the Calendar of Manuscripts or the library's cataloging could remain in force. The following is a list of some of the material now housed in the archives of the Schomburg Center:

With the exception of the records of the chief of the Schomburg Center, all of the above records have been microfilmed by the Schomburg's photographic laboratory. Master negatives are kept in the New York Public Library's photo-vault. Positive microfilm prints are kept at the Schomburg Center itself. Copies of some records not covered by specific restrictions can be obtained from the New York Public Library's Photographic Service.

Currently the archival staff is in the process of transferring other manuscript and archival records from the general collection into the archives. It is also actively pursuing a program of acquiring new bodies of records which are becoming available as knowledge about the program spreads. One such collection is the personal papers of Dr. Robert C. Weaver, former secretary of the Department

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of Housing and Urban Development, the first African-American to attain a cabinet level position in the federal government. Another is the personal papers of Lawrence Brown, a pianist and composer who was for many years the accompanist of Paul Robeson and Roland Hayes, as well as a widely acknowledged musician in his own right.

The Schomburg Center recently purchased a considerable portion of the private library of Kurt Fisher, an Austrian who fled to Haiti during Hitler's rise to power in Europe. Fisher developed an intense interest in Haitian history and culture, and he assembled an excellent personal library. In addition to the books, many of which are rare editions or autographed copies, the collection contains several thousand very important manuscripts relating to various aspects of Haitian history, life, and culture. They include proclamations and correspondence of a number of Haitian presidents dating back to the Haitian and even French Revolutions, memoranda and orders from high military and government officials, church records, legal documents, charters, property inventories, and other kinds of Haitian historical records which are almost impossible to find elsewhere today. The records of the organizing committee of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is another recent accession which will prove to be a very valuable primary source once it has been properly arranged and inventoried.

The Schomburg Center has become the repository of the records of a number of special studies and research projects. The two most important are the Carnegie-Myrdal study of the Negro in America and the Writers' Program (WPA) study of "Negroes of New York." Many writers, both black and white, who have produced some of the most widely acclaimed books on the black experience have deposited their research notes and relevant manuscripts in the Schomburg Center.

Art Resources

The Schomburg Center houses a priceless array of art works by black painters and sculptors, as well as an historically important collection of African and African-American artifacts.

Works by a number of black artists have been donated to the center or left on indefinite loan. This has resulted in large part from the efforts of the now defunct Harmon Foundation (which formerly supported the work of African-American artists) as well as individual artists. The works include paintings, sculptures, prints, etchings, and even posters. Some of the American art objects are remnants of the Harlem Art Center (WPA) supplemented by gifts from the Harmon Foundation and by important loans from Richmond Barthé and the estate of Judge Irving Mollison.

Outstanding sculptures and paintings are displayed in every available space, and students come from everywhere to view the works of the important black artists represented, such as Richmond Barthé, William E. Braxton, E. Simms Campbell, Aaron Douglas, Archibald J. Motley, Jr., Augusta Savage, Charles Sebree, Henry O. Tanner, and Charles White.


In addition to art works, collections of artifacts have been donated and lent to the Schomburg Center over the years. The African collection of several hundred pieces of sculpture and other artifacts is based on the Blondiau-Theatre Arts Expedition to Africa in 1927. Professor Alain Locke was instrumental in placing half the result of this expedition in the Schomburg Center and half at Howard University. Also noteworthy are Mrs. Florence Bruce's collection of Nigerian artifacts, and Eric de Kolb's unique collection of African arms and weapons, which was added in the early 1940s.