Historian Charles Blockson to receive the Philadelphia Award
Blockson will receive the award at a ceremony on Temple’s campus on May 25.
A collector who created one of the world’s largest centers of African and African American historical materials at Temple University has earned a new prized item for his own keeping.
Charles L. Blockson, curator emeritus and founder of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection in the Temple University Libraries, is the latest recipient of the Philadelphia Award, a nearly 100-year-old honor that is given each year to a local citizen who acts and serves on behalf of the community’s best interests.
Blockson joins the ranks of Temple people who have received the prestigious award. Marsha Levick, LAW ’76, received it last year. Past honorees include Temple Trustee H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest and his wife, Marguerite, and Sister Mary Scullion, SSW ’87.
Blockson will receive the award at a ceremony in Sullivan Hall on May 25.
“I am incredibly humbled by this recognition, and thank the [award] trustees for recognizing the value of preserving the record of people of African descent,” Blockson said in a statement. “It caps a lifetime of dedication to collecting, conversing, reading and traveling the world in pursuit of uncovering the history of our past in order to build a better future.”
In 1984, Blockson donated to Temple his collection of artifacts related to people of African descent. Today, the collection contains more than 500,000 items in a variety of formats, including books, manuscripts, sheet music, newspapers, photographs, posters and more.
“I am delighted that Charles Blockson will receive the 2016 Philadelphia Award, an extremely prestigious honor,” said President Richard M. Englert. “The Blockson Collection attracts students and scholars from around the world. Temple is incredibly proud not only to host the collection but also the ceremony in which he will be recognized.”
Blockson, a native of Norristown in Montgomery County, amassed these materials through his many journeys around the world in search of African and African American history and culture.
He began collecting all the way back in fifth grade after a classroom conversation about American history.
“I raised my hand and asked the teacher, ‘Did Negroes ever contribute to American history?’” Blockson told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2013. “She said: ‘No, Charles. Negroes were born to serve white people.’”
That incident set Blockson on the path of historical collection that he has followed for the past seven decades.
His quest put him in touch with major figures in black history, including Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Marian Anderson, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and many others.
Blockson’s collection at Temple includes narratives by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, first-edition works by W.E.B. Du Bois, correspondence by Haitian revolutionaries and much more. The collection helped Temple to establish the first PhD program in African American Studies.
Blockson has also authored 13 books, including two on the Underground Railroad. He is an expert on the subject, delivering lectures on it and writing a cover story for National Geographic in 1984 titled “Escape from Slavery: The Underground Railroad.”
One of Blockson’s proudest achievements was getting a state historical marker placed at Penn’s Landing near Independence Seaport Museum that recognizes Pennsylvania’s role in the slave trade. The marker was unveiled in August 2016.
He also made a significant donation of 39 personal items of Harriet Tubman to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian, in Washington, DC.
A state shot put and discus champion in high school, as well as an excellent football player, Blockson was nearly lured to the NFL by a legendary coach.
“Vince Lombardi said, ‘Blockson, we could really use you,’” Blockson told the Inquirer. “I chose collecting books.”