For centuries, the descendants of African slaves throughout the Americas were deprived of connections to their past. In addition, new cultural and social practices developed by African people usually were disregarded and not made part of the historical record by white society.
Nevertheless, African people have engaged continuously in efforts to preserve and document their realities. Ironically, the first repository of materials in the United States to focus upon African people has roots in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.
In 1884, 10-year-old Arturo (Arthur) Schomburg, who lived in Puerto Rico, asked his primary school teacher about the history of Africans. She told him that Africans had no history, no heroes nor accomplishments. Skeptical, yet driven by curiosity, young Schomburg began a lifelong process of learning about African people wherever they lived. His curiosity resulted in the establishment of what became the first public archive of African people in the United States.
At age 17, Schomburg moved to New York City, residing first on the Lower East Side, home to many Puerto Ricans and Cubans. Years later, he moved to Harlem which became the intellectual and artistic capital of people of African descent.
Schomburg helped establish a variety of societies, associations and organizations, all of which engaged in scholarly efforts to capture the missing narrative of African people in the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America. He also contributed articles and essays to many publications that emerged, especially during the Harlem Renaissance.
Researchers, such as Elinor Des Vernay Sinnette who has written extensively about Schomburg, have concluded that he was self-educated, becoming a bibliophile who was respected by credentialed academics including the renowned W.E.B. DuBois. He received enough support to travel and engage in research in the Caribbean and Spain, always returning with an abundance of books, artwork and scholarly materials.
The importance of his collection of materials came to the attention of the New York City Public Library system, which purchased it in 1925. He was also appointed curator of what was named the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature and Art. It was eventually archived at the 135th St. Branch Library in Harlem and consisted of 5,000 books, 3,000 manuscripts, 2,000 etchings and paintings and several thousand pamphlets.
In 1991, a new building was constructed next door and has been renamed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It is this nation’s premier public library focused upon African people.
For decades the Schomburg Library was the only municipal library in the United States with that focus. Today there are four additional libraries located in Los Angeles, CA (1978), Atlanta, GA (1994), Fort Lauderdale, FL (2002), and Denver, CO (Blair-Caldwell African-American Research Library – 2003).
Denver’s Dual Institutions
Wellington Webb, Denver’s first African-American Mayor, and his wife, former state representative Wilma Webb, were concerned that the legacy of African-Americans in Colorado and the West was scattered and unwritten.
“So much of it is in boxes, in basements, or in our heads,” Webb said. While still in office, he proposed the establishment of a research library to preserve, showcase and document that legacy. The result is the Blair-Caldwell African-American Research Library which is part of the Denver Public Library system.
Denver boasts an additional institution focused upon African-Americans: the Black America West Museum whose origins are similar to the Schomburg.
Paul Stewart grew up in Iowa. “As a child I played cowboys and Indians, and I always wanted to be a cowboy,” he told the Urban Spectrum, “But the white kids would say there are no Black cowboys.” Since young Paul did not see any Black cowboys in the movies or books, he assumed that it was true.
Like Schomburg, Stewart was skeptical, yet curious and eventually discovered that it was all wrong. Like Schomburg, he began collecting, but not just material about Black cowboys. He accepted anything about African-Americans, with an emphasis on the western regions of this country.
After moving to Denver in 1962, he opened a barber shop where he stored his growing collection. Each decade, Stewart had to move his materials to a larger space, first to a saloon and then to Clayton College. He also began writing and occasionally lectured in and out-of-Denver.
By 1987 with the help of a group of interested people, Stewart’s collection had transitioned into the Black America West Museum, located in Five Points.
Today throughout the United States there are numerous institutions whose primary focus is the history and creativity of people of African descent.
Creating New Materials
Another monumental task is the creation of materials based on sources in boxes stored in basements, closets and attics. Denver’s Clementine Washington Pigford has risen to the challenge.
A master researcher and curator of the history of Colorado’s oldest religious institution, Zion Baptist Church, Pigford’s prodigious output was initiated more than 20 years ago.
A retired Denver Public Schools secondary school English teacher, Pigford has been a member of Zion since childhood. In the early 1990s, Zion was organizing some projects that required church history. Since Zion was established in 1865, that was going to be a colossal undertaking. Pigford became part of a committee formed to achieve that goal.
“I found the church history was literally ‘all over the place,’” she said. “I set out to make a collection of information that could be used as a quick reference,” she continued.
Four years later she had assembled hundreds of photos, church documents, and articles from community publications. Nonetheless, oral history matched concrete materials as a source of information. “An easy 50 percent of all information came from Zion’s members and others in Denver’s African-American community,” she said.
The collection consists of nine volumes totaling over 4,000 pages. It is entitled “They Came to Colorado with the Dust of Slavery on Their Backs.”
However, for Pigford, the work had just begun. Navigating a century and a half of history reveals multitudes of events and legions of people. This piqued her curiosity and motivated her to research their lives and tell their stories.
The result is a growing number of publications about members of Zion’s congregation. Among the people about whom Pigford has collected biographical information, as well as photographs and other relevant material, is Reverend John Elijah Ford who she dubbed as “a preacher divine” and “a preacher’s preacher.” He was senior pastor at Zion from 1899 to 1906.
He was also the first husband of the renowned Dr. Justina Ford, Denver’s first female African-American physician. The Black America West Museum is located in her home.
Another publication focuses upon Alexander Duncan, a consummate businessman and owner of Duncan’s Shoe Repair, Duncan’s Beauty Academy and Duncan’s Men’s Store. He lived a little past 100 years – a centurion.
Pigford has completed several additional biographies, documentary publications about local community organizations and a video docudrama, The Arms of Zion.
“The history continues and people continue,” she said. “The stories don’t stop.”
Schomburg, Stewart and Pigford all acted on their desire to tell the stories of their communities and, ultimately, of people of African descent.
All three initiated and carried out most of their work without monetary remunerations. All three reached their pinnacles without academic credentials as historians or social scientists, but have received praise from the scholarly world.
Their work constitutes a “labor of love” that is grounded in a profound “love of community.”
Editor’s note: Pigford’s work is archived in two Denver Public Library branches – the Western History Division at the Central Library and the Blair-Caldwell African-American Research Library