Eric Velasquez: Bringing Arturo Schomburg's legacy to life

Award-winning author and illustrator Eric Velasquez talks about his research into the life of Arturo Schomburg, who hailed from the same town in Puerto Rico as his grandmother, and his idea to collaborate with Carole Boston Weatherford on a children's book about Schomburg's life story. You can see the full interview with Eric in our Meet the Author section.


I went to the Schomburg Center with my wife and her friend, my wife's friend, Sheena. And we went to see a performance of The Last Poets at the Schomberg Center. And then after the performance, we do what we usually do. “Hey, let's go to the bookstore and see if they have one of your books.” And so we go in and with the intention of pestering the woman at the bookstore into either purchasing a copy of Grandpa's Records or something, when Sheena says, “There are no children's books on Arturo Schomburg.”

And she says, “You know, you should really consider doing a book on Schomberg. So I went home and I started researching, researching Arturo Schomburg. Now, I was familiar with Arturo Schomburg since the third grade when that wonderful teacher, Ms. Holmes, she had a poster. She had three posters in her classroom. She had Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She had Malcolm X, Arturo Schomburg, and then she had a smaller image of Marcus Garvey, and these were “great men,” she would say. And I would stare at the image of Arturo Schomburg. And one day she said, “You have a lot in common with that man.” I said, “Really?” She goes, “Yeah, your family's from Puerto Rico and he's from Puerto Rico.” So I remember asking my grandmother if she was familiar with Arturo Schomburg, and she said, “Este hombre fue un genio. That man was a genius.”

And so years later, I'm doing this research, and now I'm really doing a deep dive into all the things that Arturo Schomburg is responsible for, and how many people that we know now when we study black history, that he was responsible for bringing them out of obscurity, out of the shadows, right into people, including people we take for granted. Even Frederick Douglass, right? He's bringing all these characters from history out.

So I was so fascinated that I called up Carol Boston Weatherford, which we, we've collaborated on other projects before. I pitched her the idea of writing a manuscript for me on Arturo Schomburg. Now, why did I not write it myself? Because I always say I wanted it to be really good, and I know Carol's work and she's brilliant, and I felt that she can do his story justice more so than I could.

So that was the second trip I took to Puerto Rico to just for research. We went to a couple of libraries and museums, and I was really kind of surprised that people were not familiar Arturo Schomburg is Puerto Rico, surprised and disappointed.

I was able to use that and realize the importance of creating a book on Arturo Schomburg, because I really at that point began to relieve that the world needed it. And so I spoke to Carol again about it, about the fact that the people in Puerto Rico were not familiar with him. And I spoke to my agent as well, Ruben Pfeffer. And I guess that was the push for once the book would be printed, that perhaps it could be then printed in Spanish, and then the reach of the book would be extended to Latin America. And so that, I'm very proud of that. Now today, so many more people are familiar with Arturo Schomburg. His contributions and how he helped shape even the notion of how we see a library today as a gathering place. And he was instrumental in using the library as something more than just a place that housed books. So I think in years to come, we're going to learn even more about his ideas and all the other contributions that he's made to just American literacy.