Philly archivist collected treasures of black history
PHILADELPHIA — As a child growing up in the 1940s, Charles Blockson was once told by a white teacher that black people had made no contributions to history.
Even as a fourth-grader, Blockson, who is black, knew better. So he began collecting proof.
Today, the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University contains more than 30,000 historical items, some dating to the 16th century. It includes singer Paul Robeson’s sheet music, African Bibles, rare letters and manuscripts, slave narratives, correspondence of Haitian revolutionaries and a first-edition book by sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B Du Bois.
“It’s really invaluable,” curator Diane Turner said. “The materials are just so wonderful and unique.”
The collection has grown so much since Temple acquired it 25 years ago that it moved into a larger space on campus this month, which is also designated as Black History Month.
Blockson, 74, is a historian, lecturer and author who began amassing his collection as a boy living in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown. His quest began after he asked a substitute teacher about famous black people in history. She replied that there were not any.
“I set out to prove her wrong,” Blockson said.
Among his first purchases were the books “Up from Slavery” by Booker T. Washington, “God’s Trombones” by James Weldon Johnson and a biography of George Washington Carver.
As he grew older, Blockson’s hunts for books at the Salvation Army and Goodwill thrift shops led to searches at more rarefied shops. He recalled a bookstore where he would hide volumes he could not afford in hopes they would still be there when he saved up the money.
At Penn State University, where his starring roles on the football and track teams earned him the nickname “Blockbuster,” his friends did not understand his passion.
“People used to say, ‘What are you collecting those old books for?’” Blockson recalled.
After graduating in 1956, he turned down an offer to play professional football with the New York Giants and briefly entered the military. His continual collecting and research helped him become an expert on the Underground Railroad, which helped escaped slaves from southern states find freedom in northern states or in Canada. He wrote several books, lectured around the world and met historical figures including poet Langston Hughes and civil rights activists Rosa Parks and Malcolm X.
Blockson worked as a teacher beginning in 1970. About 13 years later, he gave his collection to Temple and began serving as its curator.
The fact that it is at a mainstream university makes it unique among large black historical collections, said Michele Gates Moresi, curator of collections at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Many prominent collections are at historically black colleges, such as Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center in Washington, D.C., she said.
“With the heart of the black community in North Philly, it was a perfect place for it,” he said of his decision to house the collection at Temple.
Blockson also recently donated thousands of items to the Penn State library, which plans to open the Charles L. Blockson Room in April.
There is some overlap with the Temple collection, which emphasizes black history in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, but the Penn State items more broadly document the African Diaspora, said Nancy Eaton, dean of Penn State libraries.
Scholars are lucky that Blockson began collecting when he did, said F. Keith Bingham, archivist at historically black Cheyney University near Philadelphia. Many items in the collection might not be available now or would be prohibitively expensive, he said.
Last fall, the University of South Carolina paid $35,000 for a first-edition book by black poet Phillis Wheatley, a slave who once read her work in the presence of George Washington. Blockson said he paid a sliver of that when he acquired his copy 40 years ago.
Today, his collection includes valuable books, pamphlets, posters, taped interviews, artwork and more than 500,000 photographs.
Among the rare acquisitions: a copy of Dale Carnegie’s “Lincoln the Unknown.” The book’s jacket has a patch of tanned skin from a black man, which is embossed with the title.
Before retiring at the end of 2006, Blockson lobbied for more room for the collection because it had outgrown its space in Sullivan Hall. Turner, who took over as curator in September, oversaw the move to a larger space in the building.
Visitors are greeted by “The Lantern Holder,” a type of statue Blockson said indicated safe homes on the Underground Railroad.
“It serves as the sentinel to the collection … to guide people in,” he said.
Those who follow it can ask to read a copy of Blockson’s own autobiography: “Damn Rare: Memoirs of an African-American Bibliophile.”
Curator Diane Turner displays an item from the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia last Wednesday, Feb. 13. The Blockson collection contains over 30,000 historical items, some dating back to the 16th century, including African Bibles, slave narratives and a first edition book by W.E.B. Du Bois. (AP photo/Matt Rourke)
|Curator Diane Turner (right) talks on the phone as workers move books from the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection to a different location at Temple University last Wednesday, Feb. 13. Visitors to the collection are greeted by “The Lantern Holder,” a type of statue that indicated safe homes on the Underground Railroad. (AP photo/Matt Rourke)