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Charles Blockson

Black studies scholar and author Charles L. Blockson was born on December 16, 1933 in Norristown, Pennsylvania. A book lover as a young boy, the son of Annie Parker and Charles E. Blockson, has amassed one of the world's largest private collections of African American history.

Blockson graduated from Penn State University in 1956, where he played fullback on a football team that included football greats Lenny Moore and Roosevelt Grier. He turned down an offer to play professional football for the New York Giants. Blockson was a member of the U. S. Army from 1957-1958. A natural historian, Blockson taught local and multicultural history while serving as a human relations advisor for the Norristown Area School District. He held seminars and workshops for teachers and other school district employees. Blockson traveled extensively around the world, acquiring rare African, African American and African Caribbean publications dating back to the sixteenth century in addition to other materials. In 1984, Blockson donated these amazing items to Temple University, where he serves as curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection. It includes prints, photographs, slave narratives, manuscripts, letters and sheet music as well as other objects. For example, within the Collection are first edition works by Phyllis Wheatley and W.E.B. DuBois; African Bibles; correspondence of Haitian Revolutionaries; Paul Robeson's sheet music; narratives by Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass; thousands of taped interviews and radio programs on African and African American history and culture; and over 500,000 photographs.

Blockson lectures internationally and organizes exhibitions and black studies programs throughout the country. He has served as director of the Pennsylvania Black History Committee, director of the Pennsylvania Afro-American History Board and governor's commissioner of the Governor's Heritage Program. Blockson has been a member of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the NAACP, the Pennsylvania State University Alumni Council, the Urban League and the American Antiquarian Society. For his football exploits, the Pennsylvania State Quarterback Club honored him in 1984. Blockson is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and multiple honorary doctorates. He is considered one of the country's leading experts on the Underground Railroad.

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Favorite Vacation Destination

Caribbean, Paris, France, Africa

Favorite Quote

The Hand That Holds The Quill, Pen, or Pencil Controls History.

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Favorite Food

Soul Food, Pie (Sweet Potato)

Short Description

African diaspora historian and curator Charles Blockson (1933 - ) is an expert on African American genealogy and the Underground Railroad, and curates the Charles Blockson collection at Temple University.


Norristown Area School District

Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection

Favorite Color

Blue, Gray

Timing Pairs

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Charles Blockson's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Charles Blockson lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Charles Blockson shares his parents' backgrounds

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Charles Blockson describes his interest in collecting African American historical records

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Charles Blockson talks about tracing his genealogy

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Charles Blockson describes the sights, sounds, and smells of Norristown, Pennsylvania

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Charles Blockson describes his personality as a child

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Charles Blockson talks about his favorite school teachers

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Charles Blockson talks about his interest in reading

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Charles Blockson describes his life's purpose

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Charles Blockson talks about attending Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Charles Blockson describes the highlights of his athletic career at Penn State University

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Charles Blockson talks about running a janitorial business

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Charles Blockson talks about visiting Lewis Michaux's bookstore

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Charles Blockson remembers meeting Malcolm X and Langston Hughes

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Charles Blockson describes Joel A. Rogers

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Charles Blockson talks about black bibliophiles

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Charles Blockson describes working with the Norristown, Pennsylvania School District

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Charles Blockson narrates his photographs, pt.1

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Charles Blockson narrates his photographs, pt.2

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Charles Blockson talks about working for the Norristown School District

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Charles Blockson talks about his book, "Pennsylvania's Black History"

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Charles Blockson describes his research on the Underground Railroad

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Charles Blockson shares his family's connection to the Underground Railroad

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Charles Blockson describes chairing the National Park Service Underground Railroad Advisory Committee

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Charles Blockson talks about the commercialization of the Underground Railroad

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Charles Blockson talks about tourism and historical preservation

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Charles Blockson describes the importance of collecting books

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Charles Blockson talks about a rare book bound in the skin of a black person

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Charles Blockson describes the ecstasy and agony of book collecting

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Charles Blockson talks about the Charles L. Blockson collection at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Charles Blockson reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Charles Blockson describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Charles Blockson talks about his parents' views on his success

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Charles Blockson reflects upon not pursuing his athletic career







Charles Blockson remembers meeting Malcolm X and Langston Hughes
Charles Blockson describes the ecstasy and agony of book collecting
And I--one day I was in there alone--this was him and I. I came in there early. We're just sitting there talking, and who would walk into the store but Malcolm X. And I just, I just like, still could see him as plain as day, you know, the look that he has, (unclear) straight ahead and it's like his eyes could penetrate. Brother Mic--Mr. Michaux said, Brother Malcolm, want you meet a brother--friend of mine, Brother Blockson. He's a collector. It took--it seemed like it took five minutes before Malcolm spoke, you know. And Mr. Michaux was talking, and the first thing he said, "Brother, what woke you up? What woke you up?" He shook my hand. Well, after hearing the fact that I was collecting early and that, you know--he said, "What woke you up?" I'll never forget that, you know. And we talked for a few minutes and such. And he was trying to--he was on the way to give a lecture somewhere. He wanted some information. He said that John Henrik, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, told him to come by for a certain book, you know. At that time I didn't know--I didn't meet Dr. John Henrik Clarke personally, but years we became friends--years later we became friends. But he said John told me to come and get a certain book. I gotta give a talk somewhere. So he said, "Brother, keep collecting," and he smiled. But after he found out who I was--but it's the way that, you know, suspectingly, he's looked at you. Although Mr. Michaux was well known, he's a friend and all that, but he still had in his mind to convince himself that I was who Mr. Michaux was saying. But after he found out my history and such and such--so, I have met all kinds of people would come in there.$$Now tell me about what, what kind of a person was Langston Hughes and may--maybe you can describe J. A. Rogers--$$Well, well, well, Langston Hughes was--you know Langston of course been a collector early, 'cause my father had his books and I have his books in the store. I, I knew who he was. We would have some of Langston's book in our schools, so I knew who he was, I but never thought I would meet him. But the mere fact, he was a friendly person. He--you know, it's--you know, this enthusiasm eradiated from him. If, if he knew that you were into our history and all that, you know, he was a, a warm person. As a matter fact, I, I'm going back. When I went overseas, it took me nineteen days to go from Seattle, Washington, where we left from, to go over to Japan--I mean over to Korea. On the boat I volunteered for the KP [Kitchen Patrol], which is something that's un--unheard of. If you ever been the service you don't volunteer for KP, but I did it for a reason. I got, I got up at, at 4:00 in the morning to peel potatoes, washing pots and that, but I would have the rest of the time free on the ship. But I'd brought three books with me by Ayn Rand, "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged", and I brought Langston Hughes autobiography, "The Big C." And by the time I reached Korea, I had read all three of those. But just to show you I was so enthusiastic with, with Malcolm [sic, Langston] when I met him, you know, how he described his adventures traveling around the world on these various merchant marines and different ports and you know, as a young person, and when he went to Haiti, how he described the Citadel and all that, and that became a part of me. But I didn't know at the time I would later meet this man, ma--Malcolm--I mean Langston Hughes.$What, what's your most thrilling find? I mean what were you most thrilled to find--(unclear)?$$Well, that's, that's hard to answer. Like people say, you know, what's your most important book? It's, it's often--it's painful for me to say, because every, every book that I have related to our history was in--from Africa, Caribbean, South America, whatever, it's important to me. Now I have some, some books, you know, that are difficult to find. I mean very important history like the--you know, the, the travels of Leo Africanus, you know, who rediscovered Timbuktu, you know. I have the [Olaudah] Equiano's volume--his two volumes, who commonly was called later Gustavus Vassa. (Unclear) Equiano's (unclear)--he's a (unclear) man like I am, and his books is two volumes. And I have the Phillis Wheatley books. I have the original Nat Turner--"Confessions" was only about four known copies in the country, you know. And, and the oldest book in the collection is 1557. And I have, you know, books signed to me by Paul Robeson and other people like--and Langston Hughes letters, books by Zora Neale Hurston, you know, children books. It's, it's, it's hard--it's like, I'll put it this way. Being a former athlete, you know, from elementary school all the way through--went over that--each trophy, each medal, each ribbon has an association, you know. Each book that I, I purchased over the years, and there's thousands of them, have an association what I--that I call the agony and the ecstasy. You, as a collector, know --and other people who collect period, whether collect books or whatever--sometimes you have the money and, and you see an item and you don't have the money to pay for it. Sometimes you see an item advertised or whatever, you make a phone call, whether it's a transatlantic phone call, a call to Paris, Amsterdam, London, whatever, you know, Brazil--someone beat me to it by a call, you know. Other times you go to the bookstore you're on your knees, you know, at this musky bookstore, whatever, you're on your knees. And here's a gem that you'd never heard of before, you know, or, or a gem you thought, I would never thought I would own a copy of this. And you never know where you're gonna find books, whether along the book stalls on the quays of Paris [France] or, as I said, in Iceland. Now who would ever think that I would find, you know, a, a, a, a, a, a, a, a, a book in, in Iceland, you know, related to Harriet Tubman, you know? But it was there, and other--I could tell you many, many stories--like, sometimes the mon--metropolis of Chicago [Illinois], of Detroit [Michigan], of Boston [Massachusetts] and whatever; I might find a book of something pertaining to slavery, a rare book, in, in the metropoli--also I can be in a rural area and find a book relating to one of our leading Harlem Renaissance writer, Claude McKay or a book on James Baldwin or such, you never know, you never know. This is what I call--you know, that's the--when you find something unique and exciting, that's the ecstasy of collecting; then other times, you don't have the money to pay for it or you know, someone beat you to it, that's the agony.