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Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the son of a German father and a West Indian mother, Schomburg spent his childhood in Puerto Rico. After briefly attending Saint Thomas College in the Virgin Islands, he came to the United States in 1891 and began working in a New York City law office. In New York, Schomburg began to collect literary works and visual art by and about people of African descent. In 1906 Schomburg began working in the mailroom at Bankers Trust Company, where he remained until 1929. He became an active Prince Hall Mason, serving as grand secretary of the grand lodge from 1918 to 1926.

In 1911 Schomburg and African American journalist John E. Bruce founded the Negro Society for Historical Research as a base from which to publish articles on black history. In 1922 Schomburg was elected president of the American Negro ...