Charles L. Blockson, a scholar, historian and football star who was renowned for his vast collection of artifacts relating to the global Black experience died June 14 at his home in Gwynedd. He was 89.
Blockson was born on December 16, 1933, in Norristown, the oldest of eight children born to Charles and Annie Blockson. He graduated from Penn State University in 1956 and was later awarded countless honors, including honorary doctorate degrees from Lincoln University, Holy Family University and Villanova University.
Blockson wrote several books, the most notable of which are "Black Genealogy," "The Underground Railroad: First-Person Narratives of Escapes to Freedom in the North," and "African Americans in Pennsylvania: A History and Guide."
He was a co-founder of the African American Museum in Philadelphia and curated two university collections related to the study of African American history and culture: the Charles L. Blockson Collection of African-Americana and the African Diaspora at Penn State University and the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University.
His collecting led him to thrift shops, used bookstores, antique shops and church bazaars – any place he could find and read books about Black history. He eventually became well-known among book and artifact dealers, and his passion ultimately took him around the world and made him one of the country's foremost experts on African American history.
Blockson eventually collected more than one million books, documents, photos, letters, posters, narratives of enslaved people, sheet music, phonograph recordings and other items that are included in these two university collections and elsewhere. Among the artifacts included in his donation to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. were 39 items owned by Harriet Tubman, which were bequeathed to him by Tubman’s grand-niece.
As a lifelong fan of Penn State football, I remembered cheering for Blockson in the mid-1950s when he was a star running back for Penn State. In the mid-1970s, I was lucky enough to meet and interview him.
When I asked what his most memorable experience as a Penn State football player was, his answer had nothing to do with touchdowns or championships. “We went down to Fort Worth, Texas, to play all-white Texas Christian University (TCU) in 1954,” he said. “It was not like any other game. Because of Jim Crow laws, we could not stay in a hotel. We had to stay at a ranch 15 miles out of town. We crashed on cots.
“In the game itself, a few times when I was tackled, and several of us were on the ground, TCU players would spit in my face and call me the 'n' word. When I complained to the referee, he said to me, 'You're in the deep South, boy. Get used to it.'” (TCU accepted its first Black student 10 years later, in 1964.)
When I asked about his reaction to this despicable racist treatment, I expected to hear rage. Instead, he said, “I do not hate them. That's what they were taught. That is why the education of young people is so important. I actually feel sorry for the TCU players who did that because they are sick with the debilitating poison of racism. They would have much more rewarding lives if they could get that poison out of their system.” (Blockson was drafted by the New York Giants but decided against playing in the NFL.)
Blockson acquired his lifelong passion for preserving the history and culture of the African diaspora when he was very young. In our interview, Blockson told me that when he was in fourth grade, his history teacher, who was a white woman, told him that "Negroes have no history. They were born to serve white people." Blockson said he went home and told his parents, who assured him that Black people do have a significant history and taught him about prominent African American men and women.
He was a warm and generous personality and seemed to know everyone, including such historical icons as Paul Robeson, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Marian Anderson.
In 1976, I pitched an article idea to Philadelphia Magazine editor Art Spikol about the 200-year history of prominent Black Philadelphians. He said yes. But when I contacted some elderly, highly accomplished Black Philadelphians, they declined to be interviewed.
So I called Blockson, who told me that “most of these folks keep a low profile and do not want to draw attention to themselves. That strategy has helped talented African Americans to survive and thrive in a racist environment.”
Then he intervened personally on my behalf, and persuaded every one who had turned me down, as well as others I did not know about, to talk to me. It took several months of in-person interviews, but I was eventually able to complete the 10,000-word article, “The Black Elite,” which ran in the Sept. 1977 issue of Philadelphia Magazine. I could never have done it without Blockson's generous intervention.
Blockson is survived by a daughter, Noelle; a niece, Tracy Jackson; three sisters, a brother and other relatives. Two brothers, a sister and his wife, Elizabeth, died earlier. Donations can be made to the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection Endowment, Conwell Hall, 7th floor, 1801 N. Broad St., Phila., Pa., 19122.
Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org