Pa. man mounts vast black history collection

February 22, 2008 9:21:41 AM PST
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. But even as a fourth-grader, Blockson, who is black, knew better. So he began collecting the proof.

Today, the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University contains over 30,000 historical items, some dating to the 16th century. It includes Paul Robeson's sheet music, African Bibles, rare letters and manuscripts, slave narratives, correspondence of Haitian revolutionaries and a first-edition book by scholar W.E.B DuBois.

The collection has grown so much since Temple first acquired it 25 years ago that this month it moved into a larger space on campus.

"It's really invaluable," said curator Diane Turner. "The materials are just so wonderful and unique."

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 weren't 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 led to searches at more rarefied shops. He recalled a long-gone bookstore in Philadelphia where he would hide volumes he couldn't 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 Charlie "Blockbuster" Blockson, 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 football with the New York Giants and briefly entered the military. His continual collecting and research led him to become an expert on the Underground Railroad; he wrote several books, lectured around the world and met historical figures including Rosa Parks, Langston Hughes and Malcolm X.

Blockson worked as a teacher and adviser in the Norristown school district beginning in 1970. About 13 years later, he gave his collection to Temple and began serving as its curator.

The fact that it's 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.

Blockson said he chose Temple because of its urban location near his native Norristown.

"With the heart of the black community in North Philly, it was a perfect place for it," he said.

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.

"It would be impossible to try to put together a collection like the Blockson Collection today," said Bingham.

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 at Temple 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 began lobbying for more space for the collection because it had outgrown its space in Sullivan Hall, which also houses the university president's office. He ended up leading a protest on campus when Temple offered him room in buildings he considered less prominent.

In the end, the school gave him larger space in Sullivan Hall - but Blockson retired before he could use it. Diane Turner, who took over as curator in September, oversaw the recent move.

Visitors to the new space 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."