Early in his 70-year career of collecting African-American books and artifacts, noted historian Charles Blockson came across a book on the Underground Railroad that had a profound impact on him personally.
That book, written by the man who ran the principal office in Philadelphia for the Underground Railroad – William Still – contained an account of an escape from slavery by some relatives of Blockson.
“I almost started crying,” Blockson said of his reaction to reading that account when he came across Still’s famous work in a bookstore in Philadelphia. “I didn’t have the $5 to buy that book, so I asked if I could pay on installments, telling the store owner that my relatives were in the book. The owner said yes.”
Blockson, who turns 80 in December, related that encounter and many other incidents from his storied career as a collector last Friday during a program honoring him entitled, “Charles L. Blockson: Reflections on 70 Years as an African American Bibliophile & Historian.” This program was held at the Afro-American Collection bearing his name on the campus of Temple University, one of the largest such collections in the world.
“I never knew how many people would come into my life through this work,” Blockson said, recounting how he met famed Black writer/activist Langston Hughes at a bookstore in Harlem and Civil Rights Movement icon Rosa Parks, who visited Blockson’s collection at Temple.
“Book collecting has been called ‘gentle madness.’ Some people get high off pot and alcohol. I get high off books and high from providing information to people,” Blockson said.
One of the first books Blockson bought as a young man was a small copy of “The Story of Little Black Sambo” at a Salvation Army store in his hometown of Norristown, Pa. His collection of books contains works dating back to the 16th Century.
Blockson is an internationally-recognized expert on the Underground Railroad, that clandestine system which aided slaves fleeing bondage on southern plantations to freedom in the north and Canada. Blockson’s multiple accomplishments include researching and erecting state historic markers recognizing significant sites of Black history around Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.
During the program, Blockson received a citation for his decades of work from U.S. Congressman Bob Brady. Recently, Blockson donated 39 personal items of Harriet Tubman, the famed Underground Railroad conductor, to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
“The reason this collection is here today is because it is needed,” Blockson said. “This collection is not mine. It is for the people.”