Schomburg: Cultural Education and Empowerment

John Anthony Lugo


Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, the Puerto Rican educator and social reformer, is popularly known for his involvement in the social and literary movement known as the "Harlem Renaissance" and for the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City. Schomburg's essays reflect his belief in the importance of cultural education to foster cultural pride. According to Schomburg, "cultural education is empowerment," and "the most effective power is exercised through the control of cultural knowledge." Cultural education was essential to Schomburg because it develops the attitudes, behavior, values, and skills necessary for academic achievement and positive, responsible behavior. Cultural education as an empowerment strategy can ultimately create competent leaders in minority communities and consequently social change. As Schomburg wrote in 1925, "What is a luxury for the nation as a whole is a prime social necessity for people of color".


Arturo Alfonso Schomburg was born on January 24, 1874, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. His father was Carlos Federico Schomburg, a Mestizo merchant whose father was German and whose mother was a Taino Indian. His mother was María Josefa, a Black Puerto Rican midwife whose mother was from the Danish Virgin Islands. Arturo Schomburg was educated at the Instituto Popular in San Juan. He later went to live with his mother's relatives in the Danishruled Virgin Islands while he obtained his university education at Saint Thomas College. There he studied English, History and Negro Literature.

By Schomburg's own account, it was when he was in the fifth grade in Puerto Rico that a history instructor of European decent asserted that people of color had no history, no heroes, no great moments, and no notable accomplishments. It was this instructor's racist statement and his own interest in history that created and drove young Schomburg's obsession with making black history "less a matter of argument and more a matter of fact." (Schomburg 1925) Arturo Alfonso Schomburg thus embarked on a lifelong quest to correct misinformation and to educate the general public by discovering, detailing, documenting and disseminating information and artifacts concerning the culture, history, art, and achievements of people of the African Diaspora. During his quest, he amassed a comprehensive and unique collection of ten thousand items from the four comers of the world.

Schomburg's Quest

Schomburg's objective was to neutralize the apparent ignorance and deliberate distortion of world history perpetuated by those he referred to as "charlatans." He challenged any claim that Blacks were inferior and developed an unquenchable thirst for knowledge related to the accomplishments of people of color in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.

Schomburg believed that the principal reason for the global disrespect experienced by the African race was due to the institutionalized ignorance concerning its history and heritage. According to Schomburg (1925), "Generation after generation, mankind is taught a false history, a history which excludes the contributions and influence of the African people and their descendants."

Schomburg began to read avidly in both Spanish and English any materials concerning world history. He also started to acquire and collect historic artifacts so that he could scientifically refute and challenge the false and racist premise that people of color had "no history."

Sources of Inspiration

To understand Schomburg's impetus, motivation, political activism and educational philosophy, it is helpful to consider those who inspired him, their characteristics, qualities and contributions. The Haitian revolutionary, intellectual and superb military general, Toussaint L'Ouverture, was one of his early heroes. Schomburg was fascinated by L'Ouverture and his ability to train a band of disorganized slaves into a force that defeated the English army.

Under the leadership of L'Ouverture, that same group of disorganized slaves defeated the armies of that period's greatest conqueror, Napoleon Bonaparte. Toussaint L'Ouverture led the Great Haitian Slave Revolt, which ultimately led to the creation of the first independent Black nation in the Western Hemisphere in 1803.

Schomburg was also inspired by educators. His favorite figure in the field was Rafael Cordero Molina. It was Schomburg's admiration for this Black Puerto Rican educator and his extraordinary contributions, which helped to shape his own educational philosophy. Rafael Cordero Molina founded the first school for Blacks, mulattos, and the poor in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1810. Cordero's school was said to have been one of the best schools in Puerto Rico. The students at the school achieved high levels of literacy and academic achievement after short periods of enrollment.

Rafael Cordero Molina believed that the first duty of a nation was to educate its people. �He felt that education should be available to all members of a nation and that no one should be left behind, regardless of class, race or gender. The goal of education was to cultivate and empower the individual so that he could improve his life and position in society, and ultimately free himself and others from repressive situations. For this reason, Cordero believed that education was of primary importance to minorities, the poor and the disadvantaged. It became apparent that Cordero's educational approach enlightened his young learners. They became �increasingly concerned about their rights and their role in society. Cordero's school produced several renowned figures in Puerto Rico's political and literary history, such as José Julián Acosta, the famous abolitionist, Román Baldorioty, political reformist, and Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, "the Patriarch of Puerto Rican Literature."

Nearly all of San Juan, Puerto Rico's schools at that time charged tuition. Cordero Molina's school, however, offered education at no cost to poor children of any race. The school gained so much respect that even San Juan's upper class began to enroll their children. Schomburg's strong identification with Rafael Cordero Molina may have accounted for his strong beliefs in equal‑opportunity community education.

As his knowledge increased, Schomburg became a formidable debater and expert documentarian of the accomplishments of Afro‑Puerto Ricans. He collected the works of many Hispanics of African descent, such as the Afro‑Cuban general, Antonio Maceo, "El Titan de Bronce" (The Bronze Titan), and the internationally known Afro‑Puerto Rican painter and artist, José Campeche.

Political Activism in Puerto Rico

Schomburg's identification with the political philosophy of Antonio Maceo grew and he became increasingly involved in the liberation movements of Puerto Rico and Cuba. He identified strongly with the ideals and philosophy of his famous political mentor, Ramón Emeterio Betances, a prestigious Puerto Rican educator and intellectual, and with the Cuban dissidents, José Martí and Máximo Gómez. Schomburg was labeled a militant activist at a time when there was a great deal of pressure from the Spanish authorities on the island to dispel any form of political dissidence. He believed resolutely in the sovereignty of Puerto Rico—that Puerto Rico should be neither a colony of Spain nor the United States.

Life in New York

In Puerto Rico, Schomburg felt stifled regarding the expression of his political views. He also desired to further his education. Schomburg considered either a career in medicine or a political career in Puerto Rico's revolution. On April 17, 1891, at the age of 23, Schomburg migrated to New York in pursuit of his dream.

He resided on Manhattan's Lower East Side, where he encountered the foreign‑born Negro population from the Caribbean and Latin America who had settled in that area. He was sensitive to their struggle to learn English and assimilate into the dominant culture while at the same time attempting to maintain their own cultural identity. Schomburg quickly developed into a leader in the Latino community. He became active in the areas of community education and literacy, and in the revolutionary movements of the immigrant Cubans and Puerto Ricans living in that area.

Like most new immigrants, Schomburg was motivated to succeed. He held various jobs as a printer, porter, and bellhop to sustain himself while he attended English classes at Manhattan Central High School's night program. Within two years, Schomburg obtained work as a teacher of Spanish, English and World History with the Adult Education Program at Manhattan Central High School where he had been a student. During this time, Schomburg personally met one of his idols, José Martí, the intellectual leader of Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain.

Martí was living in exile in New York and was also teaching Spanish classes at the same high school. The men developed a mutual respect and became friends.

Las Dos Antillas: A Free Cuba and Puerto Rico

Schomburg particularly admired Martí's literary prose and identified with his political views. In his essays Martí always reaffirmed his anti‑colonialist and anti‑racist beliefs. In his essay 'Nuestra América' (1891), Martí formulated his own pan‑Latin‑American doctrine. He emphasized the need to come to terms with the continent's multiracial identity and the importance of teaching thoroughly the history of America, including the contributions made by such diverse racial groups as the Incas and the Yorubas. �

Inspired by Martí, Schomburg co‑founded Las Dos Antillas in 1892, a group committed to Latino cultural and political education and the goal of Cuban and Puerto Rican liberation from Spain. Las Dos Antillas was associated with Martí’s Cuban Revolutionary Party. That same year Schomburg became a Mason and joined "El Sol de Cuba, Lodge #38", a Spanish‑speaking lodge made up of exiled Cuban and Puerto Rican Freemasons. This fraternal organization promoted the study of history, Afro‑Hispanic culture, literacy, economics and politics. The lodge also focused on creating educational programs, employment assistance, and cultural awareness in the communities where the second largest group of foreign‑born Negroes in New York, the Spanish speaking, resided. The largest group of foreign‑born Negroes in New York at that time was the English speaking from the British West Indies.

A close associate of José Martí and one of Schomburg's heroes was Antonio Maceo, the "Bronze Titan" of Cuba's war for freedom. Like Schomburg, Antonio Maceo was also of mixed heritage. Maceo's father was a Venezuelan of Spanish Ancestry and his mother was a Black Dominican. Schomburg admired the fact that Maceo, a mulatto, was regarded as the supreme and indispensable leader of thousands in the Cuban revolution against Spain.

On May 19, 1895, José Martí led a company of revolutionaries from the U.S. to Cuba. His plan failed and Martí was killed at age 42 in a skirmish at Dos Rios in eastern Cuba. A year later, Antonio Maceo was also killed in the battle of Punta Brava in Western Cuba. Schomburg was devastated by the deaths of his idols. He realized that the elimination of Martí and the "Bronze Titan" foretold the end of the revolution. The most constant anti‑colonialist fighters in the struggle for the independence of Cuba no longer lived. For Arturo Schomburg, the dream of Las Dos Antillas, a free Cuba and Puerto Rico, had come to an end.

The Need for Unity

Like many of the first Puerto Ricans who had immigrated to the mainland, Schomburg experienced the adjustment issues inherent in the new society and also faced ethnic and racial prejudice. As he interacted with the African Americans in New York, he found diametrical differences between them and their British West Indian and Latino counterparts. He also found that there was a great deal of prejudice toward West Indian and Hispanic Blacks by the African Americans. Schomburg decided that something had to be done in order to bring together these groups of common racial ancestry.

Schomburg began this process by connecting with influential African Americans. He gradually developed an affinity with their community. Schomburg believed that the groups' similar socioeconomic position, struggles, and racial background would strengthened their kinship.

Dissuasion and the Fate of Puerto Rico

In 1898, the United States defeated Spain in the Spanish‑American War and was ceded Puerto Rico. Discouraged by the deaths of Martí and Maceo, and the fate of Puerto Rico, Schomburg demobilized his organization for Cuban and Puerto Rican liberation, Las Dos Antillas, and separated himself from political activism. Between 1898 and 1917, Puerto Rico was neither a free country nor legally part of another. During that time, the island suffered enormous economic hardships and exploitation under the rule of the Americans. These hardships were exacerbated by a lack of employment opportunities on the island and the low wages paid to Puerto Ricans by American Companies. The political dilemma of Puerto Rico troubled Schomburg. However, he lost his enthusiasm and went through a period of inactivity, disengagement and disenchantment.

During this time, he met and married his first wife, Elizabeth "Bessie" Thatcher, an attractive mulatto woman from Staunton, Virginia. They lived in the San Juan Hill section of New York. Schomburg would marry three times during his lifetime. He began to study law and worked as a paralegal clerk with the New York Law firm of Pryor, Mellis & Harris for five years. After he was denied permission to take the New York States Regents Exam, he left his position with the law firm. He obtained another position with the Latin American Department of Bankers Trust Company and rose in rank to become a departmental supervisor. It was during this period that Schomburg regained his vivacity and resurfaced. This time he began to focus his attention on the African‑American community.

Participation with the African Americans

Schomburg became actively engaged in almost any cause having to do with African Americans. During this time, Schomburg had become Master of the lodge, "El Sol de Cuba", which was made up of Cuban and Puerto Rican Freemasons. He changed the name of the lodge �to the "Prince Hall Lodge", in honor of Prince Hall of Cambridge Massachusetts, who was the founder of black freemasonry in the United States and the first accredited black Mason. Under the leadership of Schomburg, the lodge accepted and encouraged the membership of African Americans. Schomburg was later promoted to the rank of Grand Secretary of the Grand Lodge of New York and became a Thirty‑Third Degree Mason.

Many people believed that Schomburg began to distance himself from the Latin American community as his involvement with the African American community increased. Others, however, believed that Schomburg never lost his deep love for Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. These proponents included renowned leaders and scholars, such as Marcus Mosiah Garvey, the Jamaican‑born head of UNIA (Universal Negro Improvement Association), who was a personal friend of Schomburg, and who was highly regarded in Cuba. The Puerto Rican historian, Bernardo Vega, and Professor José Hernandez of the Black and Puerto Rican Studies Department of Hunter College also upheld Schomburg's devotion to Puerto Rico. They believed Schomburg had become more global with regard to his interest in the African experience.

Schomburg found no harm in identifying himself as both Black and Puerto Rican. His global concept of the African cultural identity not only helped to bridge the gaps between the African, African American, Afro‑Caribbean, and Afro‑Latino diasporic communities, but it also provided a lasting structure for understanding and respect among these groups.

The Harlem Renaissance

During the early 1900s, the legendary social and literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance began. Harlem became the cultural center of the world with outstanding creations in the areas of art, literature, jazz, and theater. As an Adult Education teacher of history and black culture, Schomburg became a leading light during this period. He met bibliophile and journalist John Edward Bruce, known as "Bruce Grit", who introduced Schomburg to the African American intellectual community. Arturo Schomburg gained a reputation for his passionate conviction to Black causes. He belonged to 30 black organizations, such as the Urban League, the NAACP, and the Negro Writers Guild. As time went on, however, he became disenchanted with the groups. He found that the many educated American Blacks in New York strongly resented foreign‑born Blacks. He resigned his memberships and removed himself from the limelight for nearly a year. Schomburg confessed to having a lovehate relationship with black organizations and Black American intelligentsia. He often felt scrutinized, overlooked and unaccepted because of his Latino background. His spirit was later restored when he met several influential black scholars who encouraged him.

W.E.B. Du Bois, Alan Locke, Kelly Miller, Carter G. Woodson and Marcus Garvey supported Schomburg's cause and helped him by editing his essays and writings to make them more readable. Schomburg's collaboration with these scholars resulted in the creation of his best works. Schomburg's English writing ability and grammar had been often criticized. In 1911, with the assistance of John Edward Bruce, Schomburg formed the Negro Society for Historical Research. Through his affiliation with the "Society", Schomburg gained the support of a vast network of colleagues and influential friends who enhanced his contributions and provided financial assistance. This financial and moral encouragement helped him to increase his collection and to continue his research of African world history.

The Schomburg Collection

The keystone of Schomburg's legacy was his world‑renowned collection of artifacts, such as Benjamin Banneker's almanacs, original photographs, slave narratives, manuscripts, rare books, journals, and original art. In 1926, the Schomburg collection was purchased by the Carnegie Corporation for $10,000 and presented to the New York Public Library's Department of Negro History. The Negro Society for Historical Research continued to sponsor many of Schomburg's trips to do research in the Caribbean, Europe, and many parts of United States.

In New York, Schomburg found another cause. He began to fight with publishers and producers for the creation of positive, non‑stereotypical images of Blacks to be portrayed in the media, books, and theater. Schomburg also published several important papers and translated works from Spanish. He wrote many articles, which were later published, and gave presentations concerning education, equal opportunity, Caribbean and Puerto Rican history and politics, and African history.

Schomburg also began to actively promote the study and research of black history in the nation's black colleges, as demonstrated in his essay, "Racial Integrity: A Plea for the Establishment of a Chair of Negro History in Our Colleges." During this period, he also designed the texts and materials that would later be used in many courses involving Black History and Literature, and Puerto Rican studies. He felt that education could create an awareness of self that would lead to higher levels of social consciousness and responsible social actions. These actions could ultimately uplift the nation. As a result of his work, Schomburg was the first Puerto Rican to receive the William E. Hannon award for outstanding work in the field of education in 1927.

Education and Empowerment

During the period in which Schomburg lived, Black people faced significantly greater obstacles to their socioeconomic mobility than in today's society. The inadequate educational system for American Blacks at that time prevented them from mastering crucial developmental tasks normally refined during childhood and adolescence. These circumstances negatively influenced their academic, career, and social success in adult life, which in turn resulted in feelings of frustration, underachievement, and failure.

According to Schomburg, these aforementioned factors led to unemployment, crime, and incarceration for massive numbers of Black men. It was for these reasons that Schomburg believed strongly in adult education as a form of empowerment. Adult education could equip the individual with the tools essential to achieving personal goals, political awareness, community activism and self‑esteem.

Schomburg believed that we are all lifelong learners by necessity. Our curiosity about the world is an intrinsic part of the human condition. While elders impart their knowledge, traditions, and culture to the youth, they too must continue to acquire new skills throughout life just in order to function in these times of change. "The ability to learn is an essential condition for living," Schomburg wrote.

For Schomburg, part of the solution to the discrimination and disadvantages faced by Blacks and Hispanics in the United States would be the use of cultural education as an empowerment intervention. Cultural education was seen as a means for restoring cultural pride. He believed that cultural pride could be tapped to empower communities to achieve higher levels of socioeconomic progress, academic achievement, art, music and other forms of positive creativity. Schomburg believed solidly in the positive value of cultural awareness. He felt that such awareness could only be achieved through the use of appropriate methods of instruction, which would enhance the transmission of knowledge. Schomburg observed that African and Latino cultural traditions placed a high premium on group‑centered cooperation and fostered development through cognitive, affective, and behavioral expressiveness. These factors should be considered to optimally design methods of instruction for African Americans and Latinos.

The Significance of Cultural Education

Schomburg noted, in one of his ethnographic studies of distinguished Black and Hispanic scholars and leaders, that the motivational behaviors contributing to their achievements and educational aspirations were associated closely with their cultural awareness and identity. The first sentence of Schomburg's famous essay "The Negro Digs Up His Past" states that the "American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future." He believed that the rebuilding of cultural pride through education would increase self‑confidence and self‑esteem and, consequently, stimulate educational aspirations and motivational behaviors. People of African descent had to be concerned with obtaining the level of education necessary for full participation in the economic and civic life of this country.

Schomburg believed that the restoration of cultural pride would lead to a reduction of drug, alcohol, and tobacco abuse and dependency. It would also enhance the cohesiveness and unity of families. In his essay, "Racial Integrity: A Plea for the Establishment of a Chair of Negro History in Our Colleges," Schomburg wrote that cultural awareness is of essential importance to our families because it is through the family that one receives his first knowledge of the world. It is the family that teaches its young socially appropriate behaviors. The diminution of pride leads to confusion concerning identity, values, customs, and traditions. A lack of cultural pride makes the individual less motivated toward achievement and more susceptible to the negative elements of the human condition, such as depression, ill health, gang participation, domestic violence, child abuse and substance abuse. Schomburg pointed out that cultural pride and a knowledge of history are very important for minorities in the United States to aid them in overcoming the racial, civil, and economic adversities as well as day‑to‑day challenges.

Incompetence of the Educational System

Schomburg was well aware of disparities in education, which he felt perpetuated the disproportionate rates of unemployment, crime, and incarceration for Blacks in the United States. He noted at that time that Black males were more likely to be placed in vocational classes for the educable mentally retarded. In one of his essays, he noted that the Black and Hispanic children in the United States achieved below the national average in mathematics and language skills. Schomburg wrote that these statistics only served to document the failure and inadequacies of the educational system with regard to minority students.

During this period, the "scientific racism" presented by many educational statisticians, psychologists, politicians, and other "charlatans" attributed disparities in educational achievement to "genetic and hereditary" shortcomings, family pathology and "speciation" among people of color. In an essay he wrote for Crisis, Schomburg rebuked these explanations.� He blamed an educational system that did not consider the needs of its culturally diverse students, and the deprivations inherent to living in poverty. According to Schomburg, by ignoring the students' experiences, beliefs, and traditions, the schools fail in their ability to educate them. It is important to correct these deficiencies and the inequalities that result from differences in educational achievement because they will ultimately have a negative impact on the stability of the nation.

A Radical Philosophy of Education

Schomburg's educational philosophy could be described as quite radical for his time, as he believed that education must be closely connected with the social, political, and economic understanding of cultures. He believed that education with a focus on history was a "prime social necessity" for African Americans and Hispanics in order to create knowledge of self and restore pride. (Schomburg 1925)

Schomburg referred to African history as the missing pages of world history. According to Schomburg, cultural education is empowerment, and the most effective power is exercised through the control of cultural knowledge. He encouraged his students to, "read the history of those who took you out of history. In this way, you will understand why they were so insecure and why they could not stand to have your history compete with theirs." (Schomburg 1925)

Purchase of the Schomburg Collection and Tenure

In 1926, The New York Public Library purchased Schomburg's collection of books, manuscripts, prints and artifacts with a $10,000 grant from the Carnegie Foundation. The collection was deposited at the 135th Street Branch of the Library. In 1929, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg accepted a position with Fisk University in Nashville Tennessee as curator the library's Negro Collection. Schomburg obtained this position through a friend, Charles Sturgeon Johnson who chaired the Social Science Department at Fisk. While at Fisk, Schomburg also taught Black literature. He enjoyed assisting students with their research. Even during his lunch breaks, Schomburg fully shared his erudition concerning the history of African descendants with young scholars. Although he experienced satisfaction with his work, Schomburg did not enjoy the slower‑paced life in Nashville. He remained with Fisk for only three years. Notwithstanding this brief tenure at Fisk, he left behind a lasting memorial in the work he inspired in the many students he taught. Many of his proteges went on to become the historians, writers, and researchers of the New Negro Movement. At Fisk, Schomburg also established a notable collection of cultural memorabilia similar to his own.

The Curator

Schomburg continued to travel extensively throughout the United States, speaking at universities, conferences and before various groups. He actively solicited materials for his collection. As part of a research project on Afro‑Cuban literature, Schomburg traveled to Cuba in 1932. There, he developed a close relationship with Nicolas Guilldn, the Afro‑Cuban writer who would become a major symbol of literary genius for the next forty years. While in Cuba, he met many other artists and promised to champion their rich African cultural and intellectual traditions.

When Schomburg returned to New York City, in the same year, 1932, he was hired by New York Public Library's Department of Negro History to curate the collection he had envisioned and devoted his life to creating. Schomburg organized an educational program, gave lectures, and offered several classes. The same meticulous care, research and devotion that he had put into his private collection was now being used in developing the collection for the library. That collection is now known as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Schomburg passed away on June 10, 1938 at the age of 64 at Brooklyn's Madison Park Hospital from the complications of a dental infection. After a private funeral held on June 12 at Brooklyn's Siloam Presbyterian Church, he was laid to rest in the Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn.


Arturo Schomburg set out on a one‑man mission, accompanied only by his own Latino and African multi‑cultural ancestry, to provide proof of the extraordinary contributions of the peoples of African descent. Schomburg was himself a microcosm of the global issues he studied and integrated. If he were living today, he would discover the existence of many of the same social issues he fought to eliminate. He would also find progress. He would see that his efforts were not in vain and that his philosophy of education, which emphasized cultural enlightenment is being practiced. Today, the educational community recognizes that an awareness of one's culture is essential for developing the attitudes, behavior, values, and skills necessary for academic achievement and positive, responsible behavior. Universities and even some high schools offer Latin American studies, Black history and literature courses. Bilingual programs, bilingual teachers and cultural sensitivity are being utilized in all levels of education. Today's educators realize that cultural education is an empowerment strategy that works.

Schomburg believed that cultural education could create cultural pride, which he described as the self‑esteem that results from a shared knowledge of the strengths, creativity, resilience, values, formal and informal practices, social structures, language, religion, art, science, and inventions of a particular group of people. Cultural pride continues to be essential for Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities who are frequently the victims of racist stereotypes and negative attitudes. In the words of Schomburg, "What is a luxury for the nation as a whole becomes a prime social necessity for people of color."


Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

Cruz, José A. Arturo Alfonso Schomburg: Pionero en la Historia Afronorteamericana. Puerto Rico, 1991.

Knight, Robert. Arthur 'Afroboricano' Schomburg. New York: Civil Rights Journal, 1995.

Lachatanere, Diana. The Schomburg Papers. New York: University Publications of America, 1983.

Negrón Hernandez, Luis R. Maestros de América: Rafael Cordero Molina. University of Puerto Rico, 1978.

Ortiz, Victoria. Arthur A. Schomburg: A Biographical Essay. New York, 1986.

Schomburg, Arturo A. "The Negro Digs Up His Past". New York, 1925.

Schomburg, Arturo A. "Crisis" New York, 1925.

Sinnette, Eleanor Des Verney. Arthur Alfonso Schomburg: Black Bibliophile and Collector. Detroit: The New York Public Library and Wayne State University Press, 1990.

© 2004 John Anthony Lugo. All rights reserved. Published by The Autodidact Project with permission of the author.

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