Charles L. Blockson, the prominent African American historian, scholar and author, has received many awards over the years.
But the 83-year-old authority on the Underground Railroad said Tuesday that he was “totally shocked and humbled” when he learned he had been selected to receive the 2016 Philadelphia Award in recognition of his lifelong mission to document African American history in Philadelphia and around the nation.
“I have received many awards in my life, but this is one of the highest,” he said from his home in Gwynedd, Montgomery County.
The board of trustees of the Philadelphia Award announced Blockson’s selection Tuesday.
The award will be presented during a ceremony May 25 at Temple University, which houses the well-known Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection of rare books, publications, and artifacts related to African American history.
“I am incredibly humbled by this recognition, and thank the trustees for recognizing the value of preserving the record of people of African descent,” Blockson said, adding that the award “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.”
Blockson’s passion for history and books began at age 9, and led to his amassing one of the world’s largest private collections related to people of African descent. His interest began, he once said, after a white elementary school teacher told him that black people had no history. His parents said otherwise, and shared lessons on prominent African American men and women.
A Norristown native, Blockson graduated from Pennsylvania State University, where he played fullback on the football team. He said he had a chance to play for the New York Giants but decided instead to pursue his passion, studying African American history and collecting books, art and artifacts to document it.
“I relished what I did as a collector,” Blockson said. “It lasted longer.”
In 1984, Blockson donated his personal collection of rare publications and artifacts to Temple. The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection now contains more than 500,000 books, documents, and photographs.
Blockson retired from Temple in 2006 and is curator emeritus of the collection.
He is the author of 12 books, including The Underground Railroad: First Person Narratives of Escapes to Freedom in the North and African Americans in Pennsylvania: Above Ground and Underground -- An Illustrated Guide.
Blockson was a co-founder of the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and has contributed books and artifacts to the Charles L. Blockson Collection of African-Americana and the African Diaspora at Penn State and to the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution. A recent gift to that museum in Washington included 39 of Harriet Tubman's personal items, including the “crowning jewel” of Blockson’s collection -- the shawl that Queen Victoria presented to her.
In 2016, Blockson contributed his collection of photographs by the Philadelphia photographer John Mosley for a curated exhibition at the Woodmere Museum in Chestnut Hill.
“Charles is one of those rare souls who has put all of his energies into understanding and celebrating every triumph and travail of African American history, so that future generations of fourth graders may never be left wondering where they came from,” said David L. Cohen, chair of the board of trustees of the Philadelphia Award and senior executive vice president of Comcast. “His life work truly embodies the mission of the Philadelphia Award, and fellow members of our community are fortunate to have access to his impressive collection right here at Temple University.”
The Philadelphia Award was founded by the editor, philanthropist, and Pulitzer Prize winning-author Edward W. Bok in 1921. It recognizes a citizen who has acted and worked on behalf of the best interests of the community.
The 2015 winner was Marsha Levick, cofounder of the Juvenile Law Center, who helped win a Supreme Court case to give a second chance to about 480 Pennsylvania inmates sentenced as juveniles to life without parole. Other winners include Kenny Gamble, former Gov. Ed Rendell, Sister Mary Scullion, the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, Marian Anderson, and the first winner, conductor Leopold Stokowski.