Arthur Schomburg


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future. Though it is orthodox

to think of America as the one country where it is unnecessary to have a past, what is a luxury

for the nation as a whole becomes a prime social necessity for the Negro



Arthur Alfonso Schomburg

(1874-1938)bibliophile, historian, writer, collector, curator

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In the Sistine Chapter

By Arthur A. Schomburg

Three unrelated happenings in diverse places in the world and all widely separated in point of time, serve to demonstrate the unique services rendered by Negroes in the field of religion.

I shall first tell of the most recent circumstance which occurred just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War.  During this period one of the elected representatives to the Congress was notoriously unfriendly to the Negro in many of his remarks and addresses delivered in the House of Representatives. He lost no opportunity to utter derogatory opinions regarding the people of African descent. He was popularly known to the masses of people as “Sunset Cox.”

Sometime during the year 1852, Cox and his family took a trip to Europe, and concluded the tour with a visit to the Eternal City. The bitterness that he had expressed in his speeches throughout his public life as a representative from the State of Ohio would have been forgotten in the passage of time had it not been for his book Buckeye Abroad, Wanderings in Europe and in the Orient. By some mysterious spiritual attraction, he wandered through the magnificent corridors and chambers of the Vatican and the great basilica of St. Peter’s

In the book, he told of the many wonderful paintings by Michael Angelo and the other great artists, whose works bring joy and comfort to the minds of the religious believers who silently walk on the tessellated floor of the greatest religious institution in the world. On the occasion when he visited the Sistine Chapel, a seldom ceremonial was being conducted, and he beheld several Cardinals, priests, monks, deacons, etc. Here, too, he saw the supreme Pontiff in his robes surrounded by dignitaries in every degree and shade of color. Soon, the choir singing the responses stopped and the sound gently died away in the vastness of this sacred sanctuary.

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Now let us hear the American Congressman:

. . . . Soon there arises in this chamber of theatrical glitter, a plain unquestioned African, and he utters the sermon in facile Latinity, with graceful manner. His dark hands gestured harmoniously with the rotund periods, and his swart visage beamed with a high order of intelligence. He was an Abyssinian.

What a commentary was here upon our American prejudices. The head of the great Catholic Church, surrounded by the ripest scholars of the age, listening to the eloquence of the despised Negro; and thereby illustrating to the world the common bond of brotherhood which binds the human race. I confess that, at first, it seemed to me a sort of theatrical mummery, not being familiar with such admixture of society.

But, on reflection, I discerned in it the same influence which, during the dark Ages, conferred such inestimable blessings on mankind. History records, that from the time when the barbarians overran the Western empire to the time of the revival of letters, the influence of the Church of Rome had been generally favorable to science, to civilization, and to good government. 

Why? Because her system held them, as it holds now, all distinctions of caste as odious. She regards no man, bond or free, white or black, as disqualified for the priesthood. This doctrine has, as McCauley develops in his introductory chapter to his English history, mitigated many of the worst evils of society; for where race tyrannized over race, or baron over villein. 

Catholicism came between them, and created an aristocracy altogether independent of race or feudalism, compelling even the hereditary master to kneel before the spiritual tribunal of the hereditary bondsman.

The childhood of Europe was passed under the guardianship of priestly teachers; who taught, as the scene in Sistine Chapel of an Ethiop addressing the proud rulers of catholic Christendom teaches, that no distinction is regarded as Rome, save that which divides the priest from the people.

The sermon of the Abyssinian, in beautiful print was distributed at the door. I bring one home as a trophy and as a souvenir of a great truth which Americans are prone to deny or contemn.

Here our friend Sunset Cox further comments on what he has seen and heard:

Ah! different—far different—is Rome now! Today I heard before the assembled Cardinals and Pope, a dark-skinned Abyssinian—a student of the Propaganda—grow eloquent in classic Latin, over the mercy and love of that Saviour whose precepts teach the equal right of all to live, and that–forever.

A few years later the distinguished “gentlemen from Ohio” rose in the House of Representatives to discuss some phase of the Slavery Question, and had launched into an eloquent defense of slavery in America. A fellow-representative arose and called his attention to what he had written about the Negro when he had been a spectator at the solemn ceremony in the Cathedral of St. Peter and the sermon was delivered by a Negro who was the preacher of the day.

The reading of this portion of the book created a mild sensation in the House of Representatives. In our Congress the members are generally representative of the best American tradition, and yet with all the brilliance of education, all the talent and culture few of these men had read the Buckeye Abroad!

We must conclude that the content of the printed sermon “of the Abyssinian” that was handed to him was unknown to Mr. Cox, was beyond his ability to translate, otherwise we believe that he would have handed to posterity the name of this black Abyssinian who we are reminded in beautifully intoned Latin had received the reward of merit from the distinguished, enlightened body gathered together on this occasion.

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Nor should we regard this as the only instance where the Negro has been given an opportunity to show the spirit of the image of his Maker carved in ebony. Let us consider two historical incidents that took place nearly two centuries ago and which, to my mind, appear remarkable, in spite of the fact that they are little known.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century, to wit, in 1608. King Alvaro of the Congo and his African nation had been converted to Christianity by missionaries who had followed the Portuguese navigators in order to spread the gospel of love and light among the benighted people. Chapels and churches were erected to the Eternal God in West Africa. Later on the King sent Antonius Emanuel Marchino de Wunth as his legate before the Catholic Pontiff

This ebony-hued dignitary was received with all the pomp and ceremonials that a duly credited representative was entitled to receive in Rome. This man was born and reared in the Congo and, during his sojourn in Rome, was taken sick and soon thereafter passed on to his peaceful reward. The earthly comfort of the Viaticum was administered, bringing him closer to spiritual affinity with his Maker. Prayers were offered for his recovery by representatives of the Church brought to him all the consolations of the Church regardless of his color or previous condition in life.

He had come to the Papal State as the kindly ambassador of a Christian Kingdom, and as such was received and fully accredited. He had been the recipient of all the princely honors the Catholic Church bestows upon its faithful members. The picture, shown elsewhere, is an illustration of what took place in those early days. These small panels illustrate some of the services that were rendered to this Christian emissary.

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For our third instance, we are indebted to the Spanish historian, Muñoz, whose services in the field of letters and preservation of the manuscripts and the material dealing with the discovery and colonization of the Americas was outstanding. Although this material had been scattered in the various repositories, it was brought together tot he happy possessor of many volumes on source material on the vast mainland of central and South America.

While examining one of  Muñoz’s manuscript books on Mexico, I located an entry that was singularly interesting in that it stated that the ship that had crossed the Atlantic Ocean landed its passengers and other persons in the services of the Spanish Crown on the coast of Vera Cruz in Mexico. The religious brothers were looking around for a place of worship to erect an altar for the sacred vessels, bless the ground and give thanks for their happy arrival in America.

At a loss for a place where the servants of Christ could offer divine services they approached the humble hut of a colored woman to whom they explained their mission. This poor black woman turned over her home to the missionaries and it is stated by  Muñoz that it was there that the first services in Vera Cruz was offered to the Eternal God. Was not this another manifestation of the guidance of Divine Providence in spread of Christian institutions in the new world to bring the light of religion to its people?

I like to regard these three important and significant events as convincing demonstrations of the unique contributions of the Negro in the field of religion. Each may be termed an example of a virtuous life like the case of Theresa of Salamata, the black girl who was found on the West African beach and brought to Cadiz, Spain. Here, she was befriended by the Spanish King who placed her in the care of a most exemplary lady-in-waiting to the Queen, who gave her a Christian education.

Her loving response and devotion brought her to the Convent of the City of Salamata, where, through self-abnegation and prayer, she rose to high honors in a country where she had been unknown. Years later in this very sanctuary she closed her eyes in a peaceful slumber; a lesson to those of us who seldom find time to reflect, study and pray in that realm of solitude that brings lasting comfort to hearts burdened with worry and anxiety.


Cox, S.S. Buckeye Abroad. New York, 1952.

Kilian, Lucas. Portrait of Gefandten des Konigs ron Congo, p. 997, 1608.

Muñoz, J.B. MSS on America. New York Public Library.

Sandoval, Alonso. Historia de todos los Etiopes, p, 476. Servila, 1647.

Vida de la Venerable Negra la Madre Sor Theresa Juliana de Santo Domingo, En Zaragoza, 1757 in MSS (Schomburg Collection, NYPL)

Source: Interracial Review (May 1938)

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Arthur A. Schomburg

We share with our many friends the deep feeling of loss caused by the death recently of Arthur A. Schomburg. Negro scholar and curator of the Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints in the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library.

Dr. Schomburg was a valued contributor to the Review—his last article having appeared in our May issue. Modest and retiring in manner, he was outstanding in a field he knew to be of great importance to his race.

Born in Puerto Rico, he began early to take an active interest in Negro literature and art. While engaged in various occupations he painstakingly assembled a collection of rare manuscripts, first editions and prints, some of which went back to the earliest settlements on the American continents. In 1926, his collection, then considered one of the most complete of its kind, was purchased by the Carnegie Foundation and presented to the Public Library. In 1927, he won a bronze medal and one hundred dollars from the Harmon Foundation for outstanding work in the field of education.

His work was important in that he preserved for his race and abundance of historic material which furnishes the kind of inspiration that serves any people as a spur to advancement.

Source: Interracial Review (July 1938)   / See also:

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Puerto Rican contributions to Black History Month

By Maria Rosa


February is Black History Month in the United States.  And  hallways, libraries and  classrooms in public schools throughout the country  showcase important figures from black history.

I remember working in one of these schools in the City of Buffalo named Herman Badillo Community School. Although many Puerto Rican children attended this school, the bulletin boards showcased important figures from black history in the African-American community.

So, a few years ago, I developed an exhibit for Black History Month that showcased the important black figures in our history. I thought it was important for Latino children to know and appreciate their own black origins.

Yet, there is a little forgotten fact about how this celebration started.  Many think it was the African-American scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson responsible for starting it  and he had contributed to founding it, but the origins  Black History Month started when the black bibliophiles (book collectors) had showcased their books through exhibitions that lasted a week in the second decade of the early twentieth century in New York City.

One of the most prominent of these early book collectors Arturo Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938) had  amassed a private book collection after he immigrated from Puerto Rico in 1891 at age 17.

Schomburg sought better work opportunities and had joined others already in New York City  from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands involved in the war of independence against Spanish colonialism in Cuba and Puerto Rico.

The bibliophiles exhibited their works through the auspices of the Negro Society for Historical Research  Schomburg co-founded with the African-American journalist and Prince Hall Mason John E. Bruce  in 1911. During the same period in 1915, Dr. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.

Dr. Woodson admired the week-long exhibits  that showcased the books and other black history  memorabilia of Schomburg and the early black bibliophiles took the idea called it Negro History Week.

29 January 2011

Source: BuffaloPuertoRicanPress

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Schomburg: Chronicler of the Black Diaspora

a Precursor of Biracial America

By Jonathan Tilove

By all rights, February ought to be a month when Arthur Schomburg is especially well remembered.

It is Black History Month, and no one did more than Schomburg, who died in 1938, to collect black history and provide black people throughout the world with documentary evidence of who they mare. His extraordinary legacy—the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem—is the world’s foremost archive of the African diaspora.

And yet Schomburg remains in the rear tier of black history heroes, little known and often mistaken, on the strength of his name and a stereotype, to have been a Jewish philanthropist who endowed the collection.

“I was in the Schomburg one day about five years ago and saw somebody guiding a group of black schoolchildren, describing Schomburg as the Jewish man who had given the library the money,” said Columbia University historian Winston James.

More of the pity, for the true story of Arthur Schomburg’s identity is intriguing.

He was African-American, a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance. He was Puerto Rican born and raised, intensely involved in both the Puerto Rican and Cuban independence movements. He was son of St. Croix, his mother’s native land, living for a while as a young man in the Virgin Islands.

And he was, in ideology and purpose, a pioneering Pan-Africanist, conceiving, connecting and archiving the history of African peoples across boundaries of nation, culture and language, extending the understanding of blackness in America to a place before slavery and beyond the borders of the United States.

More remarkable, he did it all without academic credentials, on his own time, with mostly his own money while working 23 years for Bankers Trust Company in New York, and rising to a supervisory position in the foreign correspondence section of the mail room. He retired at the end of 1929 with an annual pension of $1,243.66.

“He was looking for his identity,” said Elinor Des Verney Sinnette, and in the process “he did a hell of a job documenting the history of black people all over the world.”

Sinnette, a retired librarian at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, is the author of the 1989 book Arthur Alfonso Schomburg: Black Bibliophile & Collector, his only full-length biography.

Schomburg was born in Puerto Rico in 1874. In the most popular version of his defining moment, a fifth-grade teacher told him that black people were without history, heroes or great moments. He determined he would gather the evidence to prove otherwise.

In 1891, at the age of 17, moved to New York. It was in 1925, in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, that he wrote the essay, “The Negro Digs Up His Past,” in which he most famously laid out his guiding rationale.

“The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future,” Schomburg wrote. “Though it is orthodox to think of America as the one country where it is unnecessary to have a past, what is a luxury for the nation as a whole becomes a prime social necessity for the Negro. For him, a group tradition must supply compensation for persecution, and pride of race the antidote for prejudice. History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generations must repair and offset.”

In 1926, the New York Public Library, with a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Corporation, bought Schomburg’s collection and the following year opened it to the public at the 135th Street Branch Library.

Sixty-five years after Schomburg’s death at age 64, the themes of his life and work seem remarkably current, proof of the porousness of what are too often regarded as ironclad categories of race, ethnicity and culture.

Schomburg was the forerunner of a more fluid and mixed identity now very much in vogue. Forgotten as he may be by the broader public, he is fought over by a new wave of scholars who each “desire to claim bragging rights over Schomburg’s memory,” as Jesse Hoffnung-Garskof, who teaches Latino studies at the University of Michigan, put it in a 2001 paper in the Journal of American Ethnic History.

Schomburg, according to Sinnette, referred to himself as an Afroborinqueno, a Puerto Rican of African descent, but today scholars comb his life for clues of shifting allegiances.

They study his causes, clubs, Masonic affiliations, heroes and friendships, the neighborhoods he lived in, the books he collected, the places he traveled, the music he appreciated, the food he loved. They note his disillusion and disgust with the course of Cuban and Puerto Rican nationalist politics, and his disdain for the clannishness of black artists in New York who snubbed the Cuban painter who Schomburg hosted at his home for nearly a year.

They point out that he married three successive African-American women. (All named Elizabeth, the first two died while married to Schomburg, the third survived him). They observe that he gave all but one of his eight children Spanish first or middle names, but that he did not want them to speak Spanish. They puzzle over the identity of his father, and pay close attention to how he signed his name.

“Blacks call him Arthur, said Angelo Falcon, the president of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy in New York. “We call him Arturo (his given name).”

“Everyone wants to claim him for their own cultural, intellectual or historical purposes,” said Lisa Sanchez Gonzalez, an English professor of the University of Texas at Austin, who wrote about Schomburg in her 2001 book, “Boricua Literature: Writings of the Puerto Rican Diaspora.”

“I think Schomburg would be laughing and happy that the African-American and Puerto Rican communities are fighting over who he belongs to the most,” said Sanchez Gonzalez. “In his lifetime I think he felt rejected by both.”

As his biography suggests, Schomburg not only catalogued the African diaspora, he lived it in ways that American conventions of race-counting have always had trouble capturing.

Earlier this year the Census Bureau recorded that Hispanics, as of July 2001, were for the first time more numerous than blacks in America (unless you included in the black count those who considered themselves both black and some other race, in which case that total still exceeded the tally of those identifying as Hispanics—which is considered by the Census not a race but an ethnicity or ancestry). But Schomburg offers vivid evidence that then, as now, people can be both Hispanic and black. According to those 2001 estimates, some 1.5 million Americans describe themselves as both and are counted in both columns in reckoning which minority is the largest.

In his book Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia: Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth Century America, Winston James quotes Schomburg’s close friend, the Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay, writing in 1940 that blacks in Harlem cannot “comprehend the brown Puerto Rican rejecting the appellation ‘Negro,’ and preferring to remain Puerto Rican. He is resentful of the superior attitude of the Negroid Puerto Rican.”

But Schomburg was not like that. He readily identified as black.

“The key to the singularity of Schomburg as a Puerto Rican black nationalist lies in his un-Puerto Rican family background,” writes James, who believes that was primarily because Schomburg was raised by his mother, a non-Hispanic black migrant worker from St. Croix. “It now appears that the non-Hispanic heritage was equally strong, if not stronger than, the Hispanic one.”

By contrast, Sanchez Gonzalez, in making the case for Schomburg’s enduring Puerto Ricanness, notes, how, toward the end of life, W.E.B. Du Bois and others in Harlem’s African-American intelligentsia, sought to block Schomburg’s appointment as curator of his own collection, by then owned by the New York Public Library. Contemporary accounts in black newspapers in Harlem suggest that “despite his reputation as the premier African Diaspora archivist, Schomburg was still deemed an outsider in New York City’s African-American intellectual politics.”

Hoffnung-Garskof steers a middle course, arguing that while Schomburg’s cultural straddle no doubt caused him some hurt, his ability to cross those lines, back and forth, was critical to his success.

Where everyone agrees is on the indispensability of the archives that Schomburg created.

“There is no other center like it in the world in the range and richness of its collection,” said Winston James. “And it is unparalleled largely due to Schomburg’s rather wide interests.”

Source: 2003 Newhouse News Services

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Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a.k.a. as Arthur Schomburg, (January 24, 1874 –June 8, 1938), was a Puerto Rican historian, writer, and activist in the United States who researched and raised awareness of the great contributions that Afro-Latin Americans and Afro-Americans have made to society. He was an important intellectual figure in the Harlem Renaissance. Over the years, he collected literature, art, slave narratives, and other materials of African history, which was purchased to become the basis of the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, named in his honor, at the New York Public Library branch in Harlem. . . .

By the 1920s Schomburg had amassed a world-renowned collection which consisted of artworks, manuscripts, rare books, slave narratives and other artifacts of Black history. In 1926 the New York Public Library purchased his collection for $10,000 with the help of a grant from the Carnegie Corporation. The collection formed the cornerstone of the Library’s Division of Negro History at its 135th Street Branch in Harlem. The library appointed Schomburg curator of the collection, which was named in his honor: the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Schomburg used his proceeds from the sale to fund travel to Spain, France, Germany and England, to seek out more pieces of black history to add to the collection. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante named Schomburg to his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.

To honor Schomburg, Hampshire College awards a $30,000 merit-based scholarship in his name for students who “demonstrate promise in the areas of strong academic performance and leadership at Hampshire College and in the community.”

Arturo Alfonso Schomburg’s work served as an inspiration to Puerto Ricans, Latinos and Afro-Americans alike. The power of knowing about the great contribution that Afro-Latin Americans and Afro-Americans have made to society, helped continuing work and future generations in the Civil rights movement


Kiini Ibura Salaam: There’s No Racism Here?A Black Woman in the Dominican Republic

The Dance of Love  / There’s No Racism Here? /  Reflections on Fiji

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. ”

This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.

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Arthur Alfonso Schomburg

Black Bibliophile and Collector

By Elinor Des Verney Sinnette

This is the first full biography of the pioneering black collector whose detective work laid the foundation for the study of black history and culture. Born in Puerto Rico in 1874, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg came to New York militantly active in Caribbean revolutionary struggles. He searched out the hidden records of the black experience and built a collection of books, manuscripts, and art that had few rivals. Today it forms the core of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for research in Black Culture, one of the leading collections in the field.

At the center of the Harlem Renaissance, Schomburg was a generous friend of many of the writers, artists, performers, collectors, scholars, and political figures who made Harlem the capital of Black America. A contributor to the major black journals of the period, he went on to head the Negro Collection at Fisk University and became curator of his own collection in the New York Public Library until his death in 1938.

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Holding Aloft the Banner of Ethiopia

Caribbean Radicalism in Early Twentieth Century America

By Winston James

A major history of the impact of Caribbean migration to the United States. Marcus Garvey, Claude McKay, Claudia Jones, C.L.R. James, Stokely Carmichael, Louis Farrakhan—the roster of immigrants from the Caribbean who have made a profound impact on the development of radical politics in the United States is extensive. In this magisterial and lavishly illustrated work, Winston James focuses on the twentieth century’s first waves of immigrants from the Caribbean and their contribution to political dissidence in America. Examining the way in which the characteristics of the societies they left shaped their perceptions of the land to which they traveled, Winston James draws sharp differences between Hispanic and English-speaking arrivals. He explores the interconnections between the Cuban independence struggle, Puerto Rican nationalism, Afro-American feminism, and black communism in the first turbulent decades of the twentieth century. He also provides fascinating insights into the impact of Puerto Rican radicalism in New York City and recounts the remarkable story of Afro-Cuban radicalism in Florida.

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The Making of African America: The Four Great Migrations

By Ira Berlin

Berlin (Many Thousands Gone) offers a fresh reading of American history through the prism of the great migrations that made and remade African and African American life. The first was the forcible deportation of Africans to North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, followed by their forced transfer into the American interior during the 19th century. Then came the migration of the mid-20th century as African-Americans fled the South for the urban North, and the arrival of continental Africans and people of African descent from the Caribbean during the latter part of the 20th century. Berlin sees migration and the reshaping of communities to their new environments as central to the African-American experience. Movement is a matter of numbers, and Berlin provides them in detail kept fully readable by his attention to the cultural products of the shifts. In particular, he follows the church as it moves, the music as it takes on new themes, and kinship as it broadens. Berlin’s careful scholarship is evidenced in his rich notes; the ordinary reader will be pleased by the fluidity and clarity of his prose.—Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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update 21 May 2012




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