Cataloging the Pan-African Experience

Of all the honors and accolades bibliophile and noted authority on the Underground Railroad Charles Blockson has received, being bequeathed recently with some of Harriet Tubman’s personal items by her great-niece is one of the most significant experiences of his life.

A longtime collector of books and rare items by and about African-Americans, Blockson has amassed the largest privately held collection, which he donated to Temple University in 1984. The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection is one of the nation’s leading research facilities for the study of the history and culture of people of African descent. The Blockson collection has grown to more than 200,000 items including books, photographs, drawings, manuscripts, prints, sheet music, posters and artifacts.

In his 78 years, Blockson has walked with his personal hero, Paul Robeson; met Marian Anderson, Langston Hughes and Rosa Parks; spoken at the Sorbonne in Paris; toured around the world for the United States Information Agency; written books and articles and placed markers following the trail of the Underground Railroad. He was most moved, however, after learning that he was chosen to receive 39 items that belonged to Tubman. Those items included photos that many people had never seen, a silk and linen shawl that was presented to her by England’s Queen Victoria and her personal hymn book, which he received a year and a half ago.

Blockson became a friend of Tubman’s great-niece after numerous tours and trips for his research on the Underground Railroad.

“I’ve stood over the grave of Harriet Tubman in Auburn, N.Y., and the tears came down my face,” Blockson told Diverse. “How did she make the journey so many times? They were exposed to the elements. People were raped and killed. She was a unique woman, and for me to inherit her items, this is one of the greatest honors. I just cried. This is divine providence.”

Blockson donated the items to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., in March 2010 during a ceremony on Capital Hill. Among the donated items is a hymnal published in 1876, which includes Tubman’s signature in cursive inside the front cover. The donated items are the only relics known to exist outside of her home in Auburn, N.Y.

Blockson’s appreciation of books and African-American collectibles was spawned at an early age. He became ill with pneumonia and scarlet fever as a child and wasn’t expected to live. Blockson also developed a lisp, which made him self-conscious. Despite his medical challenges, he became physically strong and excelled in sports.

Blockson learned about African-American history by listening to his grandfather sing songs about the Underground Railroad. His great-grandfather, James Blockson, had been a slave in Delaware and escaped into Pennsylvania via the Underground Railroad. His zeal for documenting African-American contributions came as a young boy when he asked his White teacher about their contributions in building the nation. He was told, “Negroes have no history. They were born to serve White people.” Fifty years later, the teacher phoned Blockson to apologize.

A standout in football and track at Norristown (Pa.) High School, Blockson often rewarded himself after a win by visiting a bookstore where he was drawn to books on the Underground Railroad. After a track competition in New York, Blockson visited a bookstore in Harlem where, by happenstance, he met Langston Hughes. On another occasion when he was searching for books he met Malcolm X.

“It’s an honor for me to preserve our history,” Blockson said. “I’m only a conduit. It pleases my heart and my mind to see people of all races and school children using the collection.”

The Blockson Collection

Once housed in Blockson’s basement, the Charles L. Blockson Collection at Temple University contains more than 200,000 items including rare texts, slave narratives, art and artifacts significant in African-American history. The collection spans nearly four centuries from Leo Africanus to Langston Hughes and spans geographically from Africa through Europe and the Caribbean to the United States.

It also has full collections of publications such as Negro Digest, Black World and Black Liberator. Many artists have donated their original manuscripts to parts of the collection. In addition, the oral history part of the collection contains thousands of taped interviews and radio programs on African and African-American history and culture.

One of the most sobering items in the collection is a book, Lincoln the Unknown, by Dale Carnegie that had its original cover removed and was bound with the skin of a Black man.

“Some heinous person had it bound in the skin of a Negro,” Blockson said. “It brought to mind when I was young and there were books with the skin of Jews. This is why it is so important. People want to sanitize slavery. It was a crime scene. I wanted to tell the truth. These things continue to happen even after slavery. It hasn’t stopped.”

His efforts have had an impact on many people and organizations. “There is romanticism around the Civil War that creeps up,” said Kim Sajet, president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. “Blockson helps people understand what really took place. “He cuts through the mythology of the Underground Railroad with documents and facts. The fact that he donated the collection to Temple will be an enormous benefit to future generations.”

Dr. Nathaniel Norment Jr., chair of Temple’s African American Studies Department, said the university is honored to have the collection.

“For Temple, for the community, for students, for faculty, the whole discipline of African-American studies, researchers and scholars, the Blockson Collection is an invaluable resource,” he adds.

According to Norment, Temple has the largest undergraduate and graduate African American studies programs in the country. In 1988 it became the first department to grant a Ph.D. in the discipline.

Norment said the collection draws groups of elementary school students, along with high school students on college tours. Students on campus in the African American Studies program have the added benefit of seeing and hearing from Blockson, who has an office on campus as curator emeritus.

Nashay Pendleton, a Ph.D. student and an instructor under a teaching assistantship at Temple, has made the collection an integral part of her classes. Pendleton teaches “Psychology of the Black Experience” and a seminar titled “Mosaic Humanities.”

“Typically, students are introduced to the collection in the first week,” said. “Every so often, Blockson is there, and he is great with them. I give them assignments, and they do their research there.” “It is really an exciting, dynamic collection; they are always adding to it,” Pendleton said.

The Blockson Collection’s rare book section is extensive in first edition Afro-American and Caribbean holdings dating back to as early as the 16th century.

Among the highly prized works in the rare book collection are the complete first editions of the writings of Phillis Wheatley, George Washington Williams, Booker T. Washington, Charles Chesnutt, Francis Harper, Joseph Wilson, William Wells Brown, W.E.B. DuBois, Hughes, Richard Wright, Chester Himes and numerous others. The collection also contains one of the more comprehensive repository holdings of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Power movement of the 1960s.

Another notable feature of the Blockson Collection is the assortment of rare African and Caribbean Bibles. The collection contains Bibles written in a variety of African languages, including Igbo, Hausa, Twi, Yoruba, Mpongwe, Dikele, Ga, Sechuane (Setlapi dialect), Amharic and Bulu. The collection also includes several Bibles in West Indian Creole. The Creole Testament is one of four known copies in the United States. A second and smaller Blockson collection is located at his alma mater, Penn State University, with about 15,000 items focused on African-Americans and the African diaspora. Blockson donated the collection in 2006.

The Blockson Collection at Penn State highlights the African diaspora, focusing on the pattern of human migration that reaches back hundreds of years and traces the movement of Blacks from their African homelands to areas around the world, most notably in South America (Brazil and Guyana), the Caribbean and the United States.