Asked how he became a renowned Black history curator, scholar, and activist, Charles Blockson ’56 H&HD would tell the story of when, in fourth grade, he asked his teacher why Black people didn’t have heroes. Her answer, “because they are here to serve whites,” spurred Blockson to prove her wrong.
Years later the teacher would apologize, says Robert Butera, Blockson’s lifelong friend. But in the meantime, a historian was born. “That teacher did us a favor—she lit a flame in his belly that he carried until he died,” says Butera, a former Pennsylvania state representative.
Blockson began collecting books and publications on Black literature at age 9. His sister Caroline Caulker says their parents filled the family home with reading material. As a teenager, Blockson would take the train into Philadelphia from his native Norristown, Pa.—where a middle school now bears his name—and peruse stores, church sales, and antique shops for books related to African Americans. His passion grew to include artifacts and personal items from luminaries of Black history.
Penn State, where Blockson was on the football and track and field teams, is home to the Charles L. Blockson Collection of African-Americana and the African Diaspora. In addition, Blockson donated personal items owned by Harriet Tubman to the Smithsonian Institution. And his Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University, which includes more than 700,000 items, is considered one of the nation’s top research facilities for the study of African people, migration, and culture.
Blockson wrote 13 books and lectured internationally, receiving many awards, including the Distinguished Alumni Award and the prestigious Philadelphia Award in 2017. He died June 14, 2023, at his home of Gwynedd, Pa. He was 89. Besides Caulker, he is survived by daughter Noelle Blockson ’87 Lib and four other siblings. —Meri-Jo Borzilleri