Charles L. Blockson: One man's quest to document black history

Historians in the News

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 Paul Robeson's sheet music, African Bibles, rare letters and manuscripts, slave narratives, correspondence of Haitian revolutionaries and a first-edition book by W.E.B DuBois....

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 helped him 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 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.

"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.
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