Told that Black people have no history, a child begins a lifelong mission

Valerie Russ
The Philadelphia Inquirer

A 1942 classroom with old-style wooden desks, a chalkboard and a large, blown-up grade-school class photo showing Charles L. Blockson, one of only a handful of Black children in a predominantly white group, greets you early in the exhibition.

Blockson looks shy and pensive in the class photo. But it was a fourth-grade history class that fueled Blockson, then just 9 years old, with anger and lifelong determination.

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The reconstituted classroom is part of the “Charles L. Blockson Exhibition: an African and Afro-American Collection,” which opened Friday at the Centre Theater Gallery in Norristown, Montgomery County, which is the celebrated historian’s hometown and birthplace.

Charles L. Blockson addresses people at Centre Theater Gallery in Norristown, where some of the 700,000 items from his Afro-American collection are on display.

Blockson wrote about the fourth-grade incident in his memoir: “Damn Rare: The Memoirs of an African-American Bibliophile.” He had raised his hand to ask his teacher why she never discussed Black people’s historical achievements.

The teacher replied: “Negroes have no history. They were born to serve white people.”

From that day on, he would make it his life’s mission to search for, collect, preserve and teach the history of Black people in America and all over the world.

A Blockson quote is printed on the wall above the entrance to the classroom exhibit: “She said Black people have no history. I set out to prove her wrong.”

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The project: The Centre Theater Gallery exhibition chronicles his life and work as a historian, author, bibliophile and collector of books, historical documents, art, and other items about the history of Black Americans and Black people all over the world.

Blockson curated both the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University Libraries and the Charles L. Blockson Collection of African-Americana and the African Diaspora at Penn State University Libraries. His achievement has been compared to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture that Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, an Afro-Puerto Rican, founded in New York in 1925.

In 2010, Blockson donated Harriet Tubman’s shawl, along with other Tubman artifacts, to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C., six years before the museum opened in September 2016.

According to the Smithsonian, Queen Victoria had presented the silk lace and linen shawl to the famous abolitionist and Civil War hero in England around 1897.

Diane D. Turner, Ph.D., curator of the Blockson Collection at Temple, said that a Tubman relative, her great-niece Merlie Wilkins, had given the shawl and other personal items to Blockson, rather than leaving them to a family member.

“She understood his dedication to African American history and knew they would be in a safe place with him, and not sold or stuck in somebody’s closet,” Turner said.

‘He knew it was a lie’: Turner said Blockson had been “hurt and embarrassed” by his teacher’s remarks that Black people had made no contributions, because “he knew it was a lie.”

“It fueled him to search for his history and to start collecting books and anything related to people of African descent.”

Since boyhood, Blockson searched rummage sales, church bazaars, flea markets and old bookstores. At a Salvation Army Thrift store, he wrote in his memoir, he found three books that sold for 15 cents each: Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery” (1900), James Weldon Johnson’s “God’s Trombones” (1927), and Rackham Holt’s “George Washington Carver, An American Biography” (1943).

Despite what his fourth-grade teacher had said, Blockson came from a family that placed importance on Black history and culture, according to Turner. His father subscribed to Black-owned newspapers and, as the family were members of the NAACP, The Crisis magazine edited by W.E.B. DuBois was regularly mailed to the Blockson household.

His grandfather sang Negro spirituals and told him about family members who escaped slavery to Canada on the Underground Railroad, guided by Harriet Tubman, “the general” herself.

“Early on, he had a sense of who he was,” Turner said.

An inspiration: Faye Anderson, a local public historian, and director of All That Philly Jazz, who is a vocal advocate for preserving the John Coltrane House, called Blockson an inspiration.

She noted that he is responsible for most of the historic markers associated with Black history and culture in Philadelphia. It was seeing the Billie Holiday historical marker that led her to document Philadelphia’s jazz history.

“Dr. Blockson fought to move beyond the Founding Fathers and Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia,” she said.

Anderson criticized the recent nomination of the Christian Street Historic District, because she claims it was nominated to benefit the people who now live there. “If those six blocks had significance beyond association with a small number of accomplished, albeit largely unknown Negroes, Dr. Blockson would have told their story,” she said.

Elmwood Park Zoo CEO Al Zone, left, helps Charles L. Blockson last week during the opening of the exhibition of some of the 700,000 items from his Afro-American collection at Centre Theater Gallery in Norristown, Montgomery County. Blockson became a celebrated historian focusing on Black history after an incident in elementary school.

Turner also said Blockson inspired her as she was pursuing her graduate studies in history.

‘Not wanting to hear the truth’: She said it had been a lonely struggle for Blockson, because a lot of people, even Black people, questioned why he was collecting “old Black books.”

“Even today, there are struggles to get African American history into the curriculum,” Turner said. “There’s this debate about critical race theory and people not wanting to hear the truth because they can’t handle the truth.”

Al Zone, executive director and CEO of the Elmwood Park Zoo/Norristown Zoological Society, said he had long considered Blockson a personal hero.

Zone, 43, has a classroom story to tell also. He was 14 and in the ninth grade when Blockson came to his school to give a lecture on the Underground Railroad. “I remember how that resonated with me when I was in high school,” said Zone, who is white.

As a businessman, Zone said, he’s always thought that Norristown should do a better job in talking about the successful people it has produced. Blockson has received numerous awards, including the Philadelphia Award in 2017, as well as a couple of honorary doctorate degrees, but insists on being addressed simply as “Mr. Blockson.”

“Mr. Blockson is a local hero of mine. He’s been decorated and honored throughout the entire United States and the world. We needed to do something to tell everyone in our town who he is and that he is one of our own.”

Blockson, 88, was born in Norristown in 1933.

Zone worked closely with Turner, and archivist Leslie Willis-Lowry, of the Blockson Collection at Temple to determine which artifacts among its 700,000-item collection they would bring or reproduce for the Norristown exhibit. The Penn State Blockson Collection also contributed items.

‘Blown away’ by the work: Zone said as he got to see some of the archives at the Blockson Collection, he realized what most people know about Blockson’s work, “is just scratching the surface.” He said he and his staff were “blown away at the amount of work he has done” over the years and about the people he’s met.

Blockson played football at Penn State with Rosey Grier but declined an offer to play professionally with the New York Giants to pursue his love of history.

Blockson also met his personal hero, Paul Robeson, at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where Robeson was undergoing tests. He said Robeson told him, “It is important for you to continue to preserve our history.”

He has been photographed with U.S. presidents and South Africa’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, the late Bishop Desmond Tutu. He met both boxing legend Muhammad Ali and track star Wilma Rudolph at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Blockson attended a private opening reception at the gallery last week and gave brief remarks. He looked at the crowd and said he was pleased to see it was filled, about evenly, with Black and white people.

He acknowledged he no longer stood with the robust 6-foot-3, 195-pound strength of his football and track-star years. That night he was frail; his voice weakened by Parkinson’s disease, he said.

But he was firm about this: “Everywhere I travel around the world, and I’ve been to so many places. … I’ve never forgotten, and I was always proud to be from Norristown.”

“Thank you, I love you Norristown. Keep on keeping on.”

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