Charles Seifert: Influential Historian
African-American historian Charles Seifert was born January 16, 1871; his efforts with African and African-American history were especially influential in the Black art community.
Seifert was born in Barbados, and as a young boy he received schooling in carpentry and other construction skills. He was educated by the Christian Brethren as a religious lecturer, but developed an interest in Africa as a result of reading books owned by his father (a plantation overseer). Because these books were written prior to slavery, they were more objective and showcased a truer history of Africa. In 1910, he decided to devote his life to African-American history.
He worked in the contracting business in New York, and as he prospered he bought books, manuscripts, maps, and African art. As the material began to number in the thousands, he purchased a building for them at 313 West 137th street, where he established the Ethiopian School of Research History. Sometimes called “Professor,” Seifert was a requested speaker at many New York high schools and for many African-American groups.
He annually gave a lecture series at the Harlem YMCA to packed audiences. He was supported by his construction work and by gifts from friends. He published no books and very little was published about him while he lived, yet his impact among influential people in Harlem was great; at one time Marcus Garvey, whose Universal Negro Improvement Association promoted a return to Africa by Black Americans, lived in Seifert’s home so as to have access to his books and personal knowledge.
Seifert’s concept of history was that there is only one race—the human race—and “only one history and one civilization; as one people dropped the torch of civilization, it passed over to other people.” He believed that pictures were an important part of conveying African-American heritage, which schools omitted from text. He turned the basement of his library into a studio in the 1930s where young artist such as Robert Pious and Earl Sweeting worked on various canvases.
The impoverishment of the Depression on Harlem also led to the decline in contributions to his effort, but he continued as best he could. Seifert’s school became the Charles C. Seifert Library in 1939. Charles Seifert continued teaching in small discussion groups until his death in 1949.