Jean Blackwell Hutson
Hutson, Jean Blackwell 1914–
Jean Blackwell Hutson 1914–
Have you ever wished you could handle an original letter by Booker T. Washington? Or wondered how diplomat Ralph Bunche captured the first Nobel Peace Prize ever won by an African American? Have you ever wanted to trace your own roots to the days before the Civil War? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes” the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture can probably help.
Housed in the Schomburg is a vast collection of manuscripts and artifacts from the Caribbean, America, Europe, and wherever else the slave ships offloaded their tragic cargo. Some items, like lists and diaries from the old Southern plantations, are records of the place black people once occupied in a world which refused to acknowledge their rights or their talents. Other pieces from the collection, such as sheet music, manuscripts, and paintings created by Harlemites during the 1920s, present their creators as role models who have made their dreams bloom into reality, even when success was seemingly impossible. Whatever an item’s original purpose, it now stands as an important piece of evidence in the growing store of knowledge about international black history.
Over the 70-odd years that have passed since the New York Public Library bought Arthur Schomburg’s original collection of books, the Center has been enhanced by several curators. Each of them has added new treasures, taken pride in displaying them, and gone to great lengths to catalog and describe everything so that researchers and writers can easily find all they need. But though these devoted guardians have been indispensable, few of them have matched Jean Blackwell Hutson. The official Schomburg curator from 1948-72, she built the collection into one of the best resources on black culture to be found anywhere in the world.
As an elementary school student, Jean Blackwell was so intelligent that she often finished her work long before her classmates. Her teachers took to giving her extra reading assignments to stave off the mischief that usually follows classroom boredom. This wise precaution not only had the desired effect, but achieved even more than her teachers had hoped. It propelled Jean Blackwell into a love affair with books that has never ended.
Her interest in reading found a focused outlet when she came to segregated Douglass High School in Baltimore, Maryland. Douglass was a sophisticated institution, placing enough importance on black history and literature to seek out staff members like Yolande du Bois, daughter of W.E.B. du Bois, the highly esteemed author of The Souls of Black Folk. In turn, this highly-esteemed faculty went to great lengths to see that students learned a sense of pride along with a sense of their own history. They
At a Glance…
Born September 4, 1914, in Sommerfield, FL; daughter of Paul O, and Sarah Myers Blackwell; married Andy Razaf, 1939, divorced 1947; married John Hutson, June 3, 1950. Education: B.A. from Barnard College, 1935; M.L.S., Columbia University, 1936; Teacher’s Certificate, Columbia Univ., 1941.
Career: New York Public Library, 1936-39; 1942-47; 1948-84; Dunbar Junior High School, 1939; History Lecturer. City College of New York, (Evening Division) 1962-71; University of Ghana Library, 1964-65.
Awards: Annual Heritage Award of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1966; Black Heroes Memorial Award for Outstanding Community Service Commemorating the Lives of Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell,, Whitney M. Young Jr. and Martin Luther King, Jr., 1974; Professional Service Award, Black Librarians Caucus of the American Library Association, 1980.
Addresses: Home—New York, NY.
found an eager acolyte in Jean Blackwell. Douglass High School gave her a respect for her racial heritage that stayed with her through her graduation in 1931; and blossomed as she went through a liberal arts degree at Barnard College, and occupied a position of paramount importance in many of her later career choices.
In 1936, after earning a post-graduate degree in library science at Columbia University, Blackwell started her career in the New York Public Library. Her first order of business was to master the institution’s routines. Then, she went back to the practice her elementary school teachers had instilled in her, and started seeking out extra projects to fill her leisure hours. So she began to write magazine articles, to show readers some of the many ways in which their library could improve their lives.
“Choosing Books for Harlemites” was one of her first publications. Aware that many residents of the area were unfamiliar with library procedures and intimidated by the thought of asking for help, in the May 1939 issue of Opportunity Hutson introduced them to the “Reader’s Assistant,” the staff member who compiles reading lists on various topics for interested patrons. She explained how the Reader’s Assistant could help the patron educate himself on any topic of interest to him, and gave a step-by-step progression of the method by which she puts together a list of books of the correct educational level and the appropriate depth. As Hutson had intended, her article carried the reassuring underlying message that library service is there to be enjoyed by all patrons, whether they happen to be highly educated or not.
Another useful idea for improving library services occurred to her after she was assigned to a library in the Bronx, a neighborhood with a large Spanish-speaking population. Perplexed when she saw how few of the neighborhood residents were coming in to their public library, Hutson set out to find out what the problem was. A few well-placed inquiries brought her the information that very few Spanish-speaking Bronxites had enough fluency in English to navigate their way through the selection of materials, so they preferred to stay away altogether. Immediately, she began to order materials in Spanish, and was gratified to note that library use among Bronx-based patrons soared.
In 1939 Hutson left the New York Public Library to try her wings elsewhere. She spent a year working in the dual posts of librarian and English teacher at Dunbar Junior High School in Baltimore, then a second year student at Columbia University earning a teaching certificate. But the lure of the public library was so strong that she came back in 1942, and settled in for a stay that was to be unbroken for the next 20 years.
Advancing steadily in the library ranks, by early 1948 Hutson was given the responsibility of heading the Woodstock branch. There she stayed for a few months, only to be reassigned before the year was up. This time, she stepped into a highly-coveted post as curator of the Schomburg Collection, which she was to build into one of the world’s most valuable resources for research into black history and culture.
The Collection had bloomed into being during the late 19th century, by the will of a Puerto Rican teenager named Arthur Schomburg. He had been inspired to this massive effort by a particularly insensitive teacher, who told him that blacks had contributed nothing to the history and the culture of the world. Redolent of ignorance and bigotry, this common canard of the time upset the young Arthur Schomburg, who was personally able to list many competent artistic and professional black people in Puerto Rico. To prove this teacher wrong, this stalwart teenager set himself the task of collecting together as many accounts as possible detailing the achievements of black people. This goal soon became an abiding passion that occupied him for the rest of his life.
Schomburg emigrated to America in 1891 and took a job as a clerk with the New York Bankers Trust Company. A steady income gave him the freedom to travel to out-of-the way places to comb through bookstores, which he visited in New York whenever possible. He also spent every vacation roaming through Europe, North Africa, and South America in search of maps, prints, and manuscripts on black achievement.
By the time the 1920s rolled around, Schomburg had been expanding his collection for 30 years. It was a good time for such an abiding passion about black culture. The Harlem Renaissance was starting; black New Yorkers, proudly entering the arts and the professions themselves, were eager to learn about the feats of others like themselves, who had managed to rise above the routine discrimination of post-Reconstructionist America to achieve their own goals. This new audience flocked to the New York Public Library in droves, to sort excitedly through the selection of materials on black achievements and heritage.
In fact, as New York Public Librarian Ernestine Rose ruefully noted, there were so many patrons clamoring for books on black history that her collection of circulating materials simply could not satisfy it. The obvious solution would simply have been to buy more books, but Rose’ frugal library budget would not stretch that far. She pondered over this riddle until she eventually learned of Arthur Schomburg and his unerring knack for finding historical treasures at bargain-basement prices that even a cash-strapped library might afford. Tactfully, Rose contacted him with the help of some friends, and asked him to consider acting as an unofficial purchaser on the library’s behalf.
With Schomburg’s assistance a committee was quickly formed to set about amassing a small non-circulating collection of materials on black history. Funds were raised to keep the little library growing; letters were sent out, asking for donations of materials. These appeals soon found a generous response, and manuscripts, maps, and other fragments of the past were taken from attics, dusted off, and sent to the New York Public Library in an ever-swelling stream. Now, the actual exploits of black heroes who had operated the Underground Railroad could be documented, with the help of old letters… long-forgotten slaves could be traced by means of slave auction records… folktales recalled in fragments could be pieced together from stories in books.
In 1926 the growing list of items received a huge windfall. The Carnegie Foundation bought Schomburg’s entire collection for $10,000, and gave it to the newly-named Division of Negro Literature, History, and Prints at the New York Public Library. The money brought a huge treasure trove of delights—more than 5,000 books, 3,000 manuscripts, 2,000 etchings, and a collection of pamphlets. Among these priceless treasures were a volume of Latin verse printed in 1573; early editions of works by America’s first black poet, Jupiter Hammon, and manuscripts of works by Phillis Wheatley, an educated slave who had died in 1784.
A succession of curators, Arthur Schomburg among them, supervised the display of these materials and entered them into the library’s catalogues. Their efforts kept the collection growing and well-supervised. However, by 1948 it had grown to the point where a properly qualified professional was needed to expand it and direct its future direction. That was the point at which Jean Hutson took her place at the helm.
It was a job tailor-made for her. By way of recommendation she had 12 years of library experience, plus her deep interest in all aspects of black culture. But to add to these advantages, Hutson had even more to offer. She also had a unique store of knowledge, which she had painstakingly built up by taking many courses in African contemporary affairs and American race relations.
Never one to rest on her laurels, between 1951-53 she continued to broaden her expertise with further classes in African Antiquities at the Seifert Historical Library. She also made sure to learn as much as possible about Caribbean and other international literature stemming from African roots, so that she could recognize items worth trying to obtain for the collection. In time, weapons from Southern Africa joined statuary and pictures in the Schomburg’s ever-scarcer space, and sheet music and recordings began to add an extra dimension to the collection’s original concept of “black achievement.”
During the 1960s Hutson began to look for new fields to conquer. In 1962 she started teaching history in the evening division of City College, while continuing to work at the library during the day. Dealing with students was an interesting sideline, but as always, if was the library that presented her with opportunities to meet interesting people. One of them was Alex Haley, the author of the famous Roots. Regarded practically as a staff member because he was in the library so often, Haley eventually proved a disappointment. (As she noted tartly during an interview with Freedomways magazine, he neglected to acknowledge the Schomburg’s help in his credits.)
Other frequent visitors were more welcome, since they knew better than to take the Schomburg’s excellent service for granted. “Kwame Nkrumah,” Hutson told Freedomways in 1983, “used to sell fish on the corner where the Schomburg Center was, and he used to come in here and read, read, read, fishy smell and all!” The odor did not deter her from helping Nkrumah as much as possible in his efforts to research the most obscure details of Ghana’s history.
Hutson’s tolerance brought its own reward in 1964, when Nkrumah asked her to come to Ghana to spend a year as assistant librarian in charge of Africana. “They had the nucleus of a good library,” Hutson recalled, during a 1997 interview, “but they had collected together a black history library containing only materials from Africa. What I did was to retrieve some treasures of Caribbean and other areas from their basement storage, and incorporate it into their collection.”
She returned to the library in 1965, to find the commonplace cliché of “good news and bad news.” The good news was that the collection was well on its way to the 43,000 books, periodicals, and pamphlets, 4,000 manuscripts, and 140 African artworks, sculptures, and weapons that it would reach just two years later. The bad news was that many of the more fragile items were deteriorating through lack of proper temperature control and appropriate storage space. Books, kept in packing cartons for years, were showing the ominous brown stains known as “foxing.” Dried-out papers were disintegrating into splinters. And precious statuary and pictures were sitting, covered with dust, on storeroom shelves instead of being displayed for public enjoyment. Lack of money was curbing efforts to microfilm ancient papers before they crumbled to dust, and worst of all, the constant threat of fire hung over the building, which had no fireproofing at all. Ironically, all this dilapidation was taking place at the worst possible time—just when the new civil rights movement was showing materials on black history and culture to be indispensable and irreplaceable resources in the march of America’s history.
It was clearly time for a new building to replace the grimy and old-fashioned quarters occupied by the collection. At Hutson’s urging, the New York branch of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History set up a Schomburg Collection Endowment fund, but was able only to collect $3,500 in its first year. Nevertheless, the fundraising effort gained momentum in 1972, when the collection was recognized as one of the New York Public Library’s four most important research libraries and renamed the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Hutson proved to be a tireless fundraiser, overseeing a successful grant application to the National Endowment for the Humanities, and steering a direct mail fund-raising campaign directed, among others, by Mrs. Ralphe Bunche, wife of the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
While 1972 was a banner year for the Schomburg, it was just as high a point for Hutson’s career. Now elevated to the post of Black Studies Research Librarian, she also supervised the publication of a supplement to the Dictionary Catalog of the Schomburg Collection originally published by G.K. Hall in 1962. It was an important project, and long-overdue, since few of the international libraries depending on the Schomburg had detailed information about all of the 85,000 items now in its possession.
Jean Hutson remained as chief of the Schomburg until 1980. For a further four years, she became assistant director of collection management and development. As always, she performed her duties with style and was able to look back on her many accomplishments with satisfaction when she retired in 1984. However, she was proudest of a dusty hole in the ground which her efforts had helped to dig. It was still not much to see, but it was the beginning of the Schomburg’s badly-needed new building.
“Choosing Books for Harlemites,” Opportunity, May, 1939.
African Materials in the Schomburg Collection, African Studies Bulletin, May, 1960.
“The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,” in Kent, Allen, et al, eds.
Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science, vol. 26, Marcel Dekker, 1978.
Preface, Dictionary Catalog of the Schomburg Collection, G.K. Hall, 1962, supplement, 1972.
Dictionary of Negro Biography, Bellwether, 1976;
Freedomways, Volume 23, no. 1, 1983, p. 29;
Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. Black Women in America, Carlson, 1993.
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, 1992.
Interview with Jean Blackwell Hutson, June 18, 1997.
Hutson, Jean Blackwell
Hutson, Jean Blackwell
September 7, 1914
February 4, 1998
Curator and later chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library for thirty-two years, Hutson was responsible from 1948 to 1980 for developing the world's largest collection of materials by and about people of African descent. She also publicized the poor physical condition of the building in which Schomburg's rare materials were stored. The result was a new climate-controlled building, quadruple the size of the old, which opened in September 1980.
Jean Blackwell was born in Summerfield, Florida, to Paul and Sarah Blackwell. Her father was a farmer and produce merchant and her mother a teacher. From the age of four she lived in Baltimore, where she graduated from Douglass High School as valedictorian in 1931. After three years at the University of Michigan, she transferred to Barnard College, graduating in 1935. She received a master's degree in library service from Columbia University the following year, and in 1941 a teacher's certificate, also from Columbia. After twelve years of working at various branches of the New York Public Library, Blackwell came to the Schomburg Collection on a six-month assignment in 1948. She was married to Andy Razaf, the song lyricist, from 1939 to 1947, and to John Hutson, a library colleague, from 1952 until his death in 1957. She stayed until 1980, when she was named assistant director of collection management and development for black culture for the research libraries. She retired in February 1984.
Hutson lectured on black history at New York's City College from 1962 to 1971. Invited by Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana's president, she was at the University of Ghana from 1964 to 1965 to help build their African collection. She held memberships in the American Library Association, the NAACP, the Urban League, and Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She was a founder and first president of the Harlem Cultural Council. Among many awards, Hutson received an honorary doctorate from King Memorial College in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1977, and was one of the seventy-five women portrayed in the photographic exhibition "I Dream a World" in 1989. She was honored by Barnard College in 1990 and by Columbia University's School of Library Service in 1992. The State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo offers a library residency program named for her. On January 28, 1995, at Hutson's eightieth birthday celebration, the Schomburg Center named the main reading room for her to recognize her contribution.
Jean Blackwell Hutson: An Appreciation. New York: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, 1984.
Smith, Dinitia. "Jean Hutson, Schomburg Chief, Dies at 83." New York Times (February 7, 1998): B18.
betty kaplan gubert (1996)
Updated by author 2005