Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Temple University profesor and archivist, Charles Blockson is an international authority on the Underground Railroad and the historical voices of African Americans.
Charles L. Blockson is the founder and curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection of rare texts, slave narratives, art, and a host of other artifacts significant in African-American history at Temple University. Born in Norristown, Pennsylvania, Blockson graduated from the Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) and holds an honorary doctorate from Villanova University. Blockson has written several essays and books centered on African-American history, especially in Pennsylvania, including The Underground Railroad and Liberty Bell Era: The African-American Story. Blockson continues to travel the world in an effort to amass one of our nation's largest collection of African-American culture.
From an early age, Charles L. Blockson was a lover of literature and books. Born in 1933 to Annie and Charles E. Blockson in Norristown, Pennsylvania, Blockson says in his memoir Damn Rare (1988) that his love of books was spawned through his rich family background in African-American culture, leading him to be one of our nations leading African-American bibliophiles and collectors of African and African-American culture throughout the world. Blockson has written several books, many of which relate to Pennsylvania and its relationship to the Underground Railroad and to the stories of the many prominent African-Americans who journeyed through it. "The preservation of black history has become my lifework," says Blockson. "I have spent more than forty years amassing one of the nation's largest private collections of items relating to black history and traditions."
Charles Blockson started his academic career at The Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) where he was one of Penn State's best athletes in track and field as well as on the football team, for which he played fullback. Known then as Charlie "Blockbuster" Blockson, he broke some of the Nittany Lions' long-standing records in the discus competition and was one of the nation's most notable collegiate champions in both track and football competitions. So much so, he was offered a position to play with the New York Giants but declined and went into the armed services from 1957-1958. In the midst of his career, Blockson was a teacher for the Norristown Area School District, where he taught multicultural and diversity education in the state of Pennsylvania and was the first inductee into Norristown school district's Hall of Fame and Hall of Champions. Eventually, Blockson would lecture and teach African-American culture all over the world, including in Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark. Since then, Blockson has traveled even further to find rare and priceless gems of the African Diaspora and established his own library collections at Temple University in 1982, where he is the curator of The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection.
As part of Temple University's special collections library, Blockson's collections contains rare books, prints, photographs, slave narratives, manuscripts, letters, sheet music, and even foreign language publications from the 1600s. Its modern day material includes works from the civil rights era and Negro Baseball Leagues, along with many social and political personalities of Pennsylvania. His collection is said to contain around 150,000 items. The collection spans nearly four centuries, from Leo Africanus to Langston Hughes, and spans geographically from Africa through Europe and the Caribbean to the United States.
One of Blockson's personal favorites of his collection includes works from his proclaimed "Lifetime Hero," Paul Robeson. Blockson has gathered about 3,000 items in his Robeson collection, including literature, on the famous author, athlete, and actor, including Abyssinia (London, 1933), The Story of the Zulus (London, 1911), and La Sculpture Negre Primitive (Paris, 1929). In addition, the Robeson Collection has everything from playbills, sculptures, scrapbooks, painting, records, letters, books, pamphlets, and posters, all spanning the intricate and diverse lifestyle of Robeson.
One of the most notable parts of his collection is the first edition works of authors like Phillis Wheatley, W.E.B. Dubois, George Washington Williams, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Johannes Capitein, and Carter G. Williams. The collection contains some of these authors' first editions, rare works of literature that aren't available anywhere else in the United States or even the world. Blockson's extensive collection of manuscripts are assembled from all over the world, including the Europe and the Caribbean collection consisting of sheet music, the principal papers of Samuel Holmes, William Grant Still, Dr. R.R. Wright, Natalie Hinderas, and Dr. Ruth Wright Hayre, as well as rare letters signed by Haitian Revolution leaders Toussaint L'Overture and Henri Christophe (both leaders have several pieces of rare artwork in their image displayed at Temple University). Other works of 17th century literature include Corippus' Africani Grammatici (1581); The Life and Times of Ioannis Leonis Africannus (1632); and David Walker's Appeal (1829). Blockson's collection is diverse, with pieces of history and culture in the lives of African descendants varying from Black erotica to an extensive collection of African Bibles.
The hand that holds the quill, pen, pencil, controls history," Blockson once wrote, according to the Norristown Patch. Today, Charles Blockson resides in the Northwest Philadelphia area. He has one daughter, Noelle, and was married to Elizabeth Parker, from whom he is now divorced. Not only do his honors include the Pennsylvania State Quarterback Club, which he received in 1984, but Blockson is also the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and holds multiple honorary doctorates. He is also responsible for launching a historial marker project that commemorates the contribution of African-Americans at sixty-four sites in Philadelphia.
Recently, Blockson published The President's House Revisted behind the Scenes: The Samuel Fraunces Story (2013), a book that explores the signficant role of an enslaved man's stewardship to George Washington during the president's tenure. And the Norristown Men of Excellence, Inc.— a group that serves the Norristown area by supporting programs that support the health and wellness of its community members, according to the group's web site — has considered renaming the Montomery County Public Library in Norristown after Blockson, who is celebrated there as a local hero and scholar.
Black Genealogy. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1977.
Pennsylvania's Black History. Philadelphia: Portfolio Associates, 1981.
Hippocrene Guide to the Underground Railroad. New York: Hippocrene, 1984.
The Underground Railroad. New York: Prentice-Hall Press, 1987.
The Journey of John W. Mosley. Philadelphia: Temple Univeresity Press, 1992.
African-Americans in Pennsylvania: A History and Guide. Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1994.
Black Genealogy. (with Ron Fry) Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1997.
African-Americans in Pennsylvania: Above Ground and Underground: An Illustrated Guide. Harrisburg: RB Books, 2001.
The Liberty Bell Era: The African-American Story. Harrisburg: RB Books, 2003.
The Haitian Revolution: Celebrating the First Black Republic. Virginia Beach: Donning Co. Publishers, 2004.
Damn Rare: The Memoirs of an African-American Bibliophile. Tracy: Quantum Leap Publishers, 1988.
Berhanu, Aslaku. "Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection." Temple University. 2006. 12 Mar. 2006.