National Geographic : 1984 Jul
On Assignment HOBBY TURNED TO OBSESSION for Charles L. Blockson (above), who over the past 40 years has tracked black history across the United States, Canada, and Eu rope. He amassed a remarkable 20,000-item collection of Afro-American materials, which he donated last year to Temple University in Philadelphia; he serves now as its curator. College lecturer and author of The Under ground Railroadin Pennsylvania, Pennsylva nia's Black History, and Black Genealogy, Blockson and photographer Louie Psihoyos located many hiding places of runaway slaves for the article in this issue. Here at Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, Blockson visits the property of George Corson, where abolition ists once gathered and fugitives found shelter. In a Rochester, New York, attic Blockson found he couldn't recapture a runaway's expe rience because the trapdoor was too small for his six-foot-three frame. "If I were escaping, I would have had to find another place to hide." In Toronto, a northern destination for escaped slaves, he visited the Underground Railroad Restaurant, which displays memorabilia and features traditional southern cooking. His collecting days began as a child, when a white teacher told him that there were only a few notable black Americans, such as George Washington Carver. Challenged, Blockson set out to prove her wrong. He began to collect books and soon realized blacks had partic ipated in most famous episodes of American history, including the Boston Massacre. On road trips as a Penn State fullback, he often left roommates Roosevelt Grier and Lenny Moore and prowled bookstores and flea markets. Later, as a public-school counselor, he continued his search, picking up such finds as a 1632 edition of the works of explorer Leo Africanus, African grammars written by mis sionaries, American slave narratives, English abolitionist tracts, pro- and antislavery es says, sheet music, and art objects. "Collecting expeditions have been a de lightful diversion," Mr. Blockson said, "help ing me to fight ignorance-in many ways the worst form of slavery."