PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) — A tribute to Charles L. Blockson took place on Tuesday afternoon at the Temple Performing Arts Center, giving those inspired by his work a chance to honor the late scholar, activist and collector of African American Artifacts who recently passed away.
Blockson, who died on June 14, curated one of the most prestigious collections of African American artifacts in the country.
“There’s a copy of The Underground Railroad,” said Dr. Diane Turner, curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection on the Temple University campus.
The collection is comprised of artifacts ranging from documents belonging to abolitionist William Still to photos, artwork, books and more detailing African and African American history. Blockson donated the items and made it his life’s mission to document the story of African Americans, which often went untold.
“Mr. Blockson was the first African American to get a cover story in the National Geographic,” said Turner, who met Blockson when she became his graduate assistant decades ago.
“That’s all he was trying to do is to eradicate stereotype and tell the truth,” she said of the collection, which is open to the public for viewing and research purposes.
Blockson achieved his goal before his passing at 89 years old.
The news sparked sorrow and memories among those who knew him, including Beverly Hill Lomax, wife of the late Dr. Walter Lomax Jr., the legendary Philadelphia philanthropist and physician.
He and Blockson met while they were students at Penn State.
“In his own right, (Blockson) was a genius in preserving all this,” she said, recalling the first time Blockson showed her and her husband his home collection. “We were just blown away by all of the magazines, the newspapers the books.”
A native of Norristown, Montgomery County, Blockson started collecting items when he was just 10 years old after he asked his white teacher about African American history.
“His teacher was not a malicious person and his thinking was with the time,” Turner said. “And she said to him, ‘Charles, Negroes have no history and it’s their place to serve whites.'”
Blockson spent the rest of his life disproving that thought.
“It was very hard for him. He used his own money,” she said of Blockson’s acquisition of many items. Others were gifted to him, many from local families.
Now that he has passed away, some of the historic items from Blockson’s home will be brought to the Blockson Collection at Temple.
Others will be given to family and friends, and two other exhibits in his honor: one at Penn State and the other in Norristown.
Blockson acquired items as simple as old magazines and as amazing as the shawl of Harriet Tubman, which was given to her by Queen Victoria.
Blockson gifted the item to the Smithsonian so that it could be on display.
“He just had this desire to understand more about his people and, I think, himself,” said Lomax.
It’s why the only thing more enduring than Charles Blockson’s collection is his legacy.
“We really miss him but he’s here,” said Turner. “His spirit is here. His legacy is here and we will continue that legacy.”
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