Edgar Oscar Challenger and Arthur Schomburg correspondence

Portrait of Arthur Alfonso Schomburg, bibliophile; New York Public Library digital collections

A distant cousin of my husband was labor leader, historian, and scholar Edgar Oscar Challenger (1905-2000), through a shared ancestry of two Madeiran sisters who immigrated to St Kitts. I recently stumbled on a fascinating collection of letters that Challenger wrote in the 1930s to someone he always addressed respectfully as “Mr. Schomburg”. His correspondent was Arthur (Arturo) Schomburg (1874-1938), a noted scholar, author, and library curator. The New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture began in 1926 with the purchase of Schomburg’s extensive collection of literature, art, and objects related to the African diaspora. The center’s library started out with 10,000 items, but holds over 10 million today, including rare books, manuscripts, films, and artifacts from the United States as well as South America and the Caribbean region.

The letters are held in the New York Public Library’s Arthur Alfonso Schomburg papers archive. The collection contains correspondence from important historical figures like W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and W. C. Handy. The letters I found were written in the time period of 1933 to 1936, when Edgar Oscar was living first on the small Caribbean island of Dominica, then on his home island of St Kitts. It’s evident from Challenger’s writing that he relied on Schomburg for scholarly discussions on topics of mutual interest. He also looked to him as a connection with the intellectual world of African Americans in New York City, and certainly as a valued friend on a more personal level.

In a 1933 letter, Challenger wrote about hoping to buy a house where he was staying on Dominica. It had been owned by a writer named Charles H. Scribner (possibly Charles Henry Scribner). His plan was to buy the house, clean up the surrounding land, and start producing a marketable crop of produce. He also described the depression era conditions of laborers on St Kitts, with the island’s economic reliance on a dying sugar industry. Foreshadowing his involvement in the Kittitian labor movements in the coming decades, he lamented the control of the island’s one remaining sugar processing factory by absentee British owners. He told Schomburg about the short season for sugar production that left laborers without employment for many months a year, their struggle for sufficient food and housing, and corrupt factions on the island that preyed on the poor farm workers of African descent.

By early 1934, Challenger was back in St Kitts, working in his family mercantile business in the capital Basseterre. Though the depression was affecting profits, the business was still afloat, and he told Schomburg of his efforts to keep the store going. He again discussed the sorry state of the sugar industry, describing how a century of farming sugar cane without properly caring for the fields had led to “exhausted soil” that couldn’t sustain crops. He wrote scathingly:

“Can you imagine the moral cowardice of our planters here who know it to be exhausting to the soil, but fearful of facing the British Imperial Lion of Oppression – which is itself a cowardly cur! – they prefer to bow to an impossible factory system of oppression and tax the ground to bankruptcy.”

Along with writing about labor and economic conditions in St Kitts, Edgar often turned to more scholarly thoughts. Like Schomburg, he was interested in various aspects of the African diaspora, both in the United States and the Caribbean. He had spent several years in New York City, attending classes at City College and Columbia University in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He apparently began his own study of Caribbean history when he found no relevant courses at his universities. Schomberg seems to have provided him with research materials not available in St Kitts. He periodically asked Schomberg to send him books and NY newspapers, with a few pound notes enclosed in his letters to cover costs. His interest was in subjects like slavery during biblical times, the Spanish conquest of the Mayans, and the Haitian revolutionary leader Henri Christophe (researching whether Christophe was born in St Kitts). He asked for books of poetry by African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and Afro-Caribbean poet Claude McKay, and paintings by, and about, people of color, to hang on the walls of his home. He apologized to Schomburg for his many requests, but explained eloquently that he sometimes feels a “hungry feeling isolation” in St Kitts. He wrote that he was a member of a club called the Mutual Improvement Society in Basseterre, a group he shared his scholarly resources with.

Another aspect of the correspondence that stands out is the mention of Edgar Oscar’s acquaintance with a very wide range of prominent people of color. He once wrote that when early African American aviators Albert Ernest Forsythe and Charles Alfred Anderson toured the West Indies in 1934, he’d be glad to host them in Basseterre if Arthur could arrange it. He asked Schomburg in 1936 to look after an Antigua-born concert pianist that he knew named Bruce Wendel, when the musician traveled on tour to New York City. He wrote about a woman called Harriet Shiel who was staying with him in St Kitts, whose brother was the science fiction writer Matthew Phipps Shiel (both born in the nearby West Indian island of Montserrat). When he described efforts at combating liquor smuggling in Kitts, he mentioned in passing the brother of a local official, the “Young Hope Stevens in NY going to CCNY [City College of NY] studying for law”. Hope Stevens was a Kittitian who later became an influential lawyer and civil rights leader in Harlem.

One can imagine the West Indian version of the literary and artistic salons of Paris, London, and the Harlem Renaissance, with Edgar Oscar Challenger as the host, bringing together interesting people from all walks of life to talk about art, politics, and history.

Sources

  1. New York Public Library, Digital Collections, Arthur Alfonso Schomburg papers
  2. New York Public Library, “Arturo A. Schomburg: His Life and Legacy”, 2020
  3. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Slavery and Remembrance, “Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture“, 2024
  4. Historic St Kitts, Our People, Edgar Challenger, St Kitts Nevis Archives 2018
  5. Archivegrid, Bruce Wendel papers, 1936-1937
  6. National Air and Space Museum, Barron Hilton Pioneers of Flight Gallery, C. Alfred Anderson and Albert Forsythe
  7. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, M P Shiel
  8. NY Times, “Hope Stevens, 77, Harlem Leader, Lawyer, and Businessman, is Dead”, June 25, 1982

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