Meet the face of our newest alum pin, Jean Blackwell Hutson ‘35. To pick up a pin, stop by the Barnard Library!
Jean Blackwell Hutson is best known for her work at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where she served as chief for 32 years (1948-1980). Hutson expanded the Schomburg immensely during her tenure there, increasing the collection from 15,000 works to 75,000 works. As a librarian, archivist, and educator, Hutson was an advocate for the importance of cultural and scholarly centers dedicated to the preservation of Black history and life around the world.
Born in Sommerfield, Florida in 1914, Hutson moved to Baltimore with her mother (a teacher) after her parents divorced. Her biographer Sharon Fitzgerald said in an interview with Schomburg archivist Alexsandra Mitchell that Hutson was a “precocious… [and] gifted child.” From a young age, Hutson formed connections with important Black intellectuals of her time. She met Langston Hughes when she was young and they became lifelong friends. He often referred to her as his “little sister,” and would later help her transition into the social and intellectual world of Harlem. While attending Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore, Hutson encountered teachers such as Norma Marshall (Thurgood Marshall’s mother), Yolanda Du Bois (W.E.B. Du Bois’ daughter and a figure of the Harlem Renaissance), and May Miller (the daughter of Kelly Miller and a well-known Harlem Renaissance-era writer).
Path to Barnard
After graduating at fifteen as Valedictorian of her high school class, Hutson spent three years studying psychiatry at the University of Michigan. While she was there, she organized against their segregated dorms. Hutson’s mother was worried about how much time Hutson was spending on student activism, so she encouraged her to transfer to Barnard. At Barnard, Hutson switched her major from psychiatry to English. Barnard also had segregated dorms at that time, but Hutson lived in the International House at Columbia where graduate students lived. During her time at Barnard, Hutson was also a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority. She would later return to Barnard in 1974 to speak about her career at a Thursday Noon meeting, and again in 1983 to participate in a “Dialogue Between Distinguished Educators.”
Becoming a Librarian
After college, Hutson spent a year getting her masters at the Columbia School of Library Service. Library science was not Hutson’s intended career path — she initially took it up as a temporary occupation while saving money for medical school. However, she never left the field of libraries and education after graduate school.
Hutson’s advocacy for accessibility and attention to marginalized peoples started early on in her career as a librarian, when she worked at a New York Public Library branch in the Bronx. There, she expanded the collection to include books in Spanish that would appeal to the Spanish speaking patrons of the library. Sharon Fitzgerald notes that Hutson brought, “uncompromised intellect… to every idea… so the library became a natural place for her,” and that she shared, “extraordinary generosity… with patrons.”
Hutson married musician Andy Razaf in 1939, but they got a divorce after eight years of marriage. Starting in 1947 she worked in New York Public Library’s Division of Negro Literature, and she became chief of the Schomburg Collection (originally based on Arthur Schomburg’s private collection of books) in 1948. In 1950, she married John Hutson. They later had a daughter, Jean Frances Hutson. Unfortunately, that marriage was also brief as John Hutson passed away in 1957.
Hutson’s Time as Chief
Hutson spurred a tremendous amount of growth at the Schomburg. She curated important art and historical collections and got her friends Langston Hughes and Richard Wright to donate their personal papers to the collection. Hutson said in a 1964 radio interview with Director of Urban Planning of the American Jewish Committee Irving M. Levine that she was committed to, “filling the gaps of omissions that have occurred” in the telling of Black history. Her work as a librarian and archivist reflects her success in this pursuit. In 1962, Hutson helped publish the Dictionary Catalogue of the Schomburg Collection. This catalogue made the reach of the Schomburg global, as microfilms of the catalogue allowed libraries around the world to explore the contents of the collection. Hutson’s personal prowess as a librarian and educator also attracted international attention. In 1964, she was invited to the University of Ghana to help assemble their Africana collection. She spent the year there as a librarian in the University’s Balme Library.
On her return to the Schomburg, Hutson focused her efforts on fundraising for a new building to house the Schomburg. In addition to helping create the Schomburg Corporation in 1971, Hutson lobbied for federal funding in Albany. Her efforts came to fruition in 1981 when the impressive $3.7 million building opened its doors.
Life beyond the Schomburg
Even though she retired from the position of chief in 1981, Hutson’s name will forever be attached to the Schomburg Collection, especially because of the Jean Hutson General Research and Reference Division (which was dedicated to Hutson on her 80th birthday). After her retirement, Hutson went on to hold a position in the office of library administration at the NYPL.
Hutson was also involved in many organizations beyond the Schomburg, including the American Library Association, the African Studies Association, the NAACP, and the Urban League. In addition, she helped found the Black Academy of Arts and Letters and was the first president of the Harlem Cultural Council. She was an associate adjunct professor of history at City College, where she encouraged students who were engaged in the Black Power movement to use the Schomburg as a resource for their activism. She wrote for journals and library publications, and also contributed to books such as Notable American Women: The Modern Period: a Biographical Dictionary. She has been honored with many awards, including The Annual Heritage Award of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, 1966; The 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; and The Professional Service Award, Black Librarians Caucus of the American Library Association, 1980.
Hutson passed away in 1998 at age 83, leaving behind a rich legacy of scholarship, culture, and history for the world to cherish and explore.
-Sarah Barlow-Ochshorn ’20
“A Celebration of Scholarship.” Barnard Alumnae, Summer 1983. http://digitalcollections.barnard.edu/islandora/object/BC11-08:10450#page/16/mode/2up.
Chambers, Kate. “Navasky Speaks at Thursday Noon.” Barnard Bulletin (New York), January 31, 1974. http://digitalcollections.barnard.edu/islandora/object/bc:bulletin-19740131-5.
“Class Notes.” Barnard Alumnae, Fall 1984. http://digitalcollections.barnard.edu/islandora/object/BC11-08:10695#page/40/mode/2up.
Fitzgerald, Sharon. “The Early Life of Jean Blackwell Hutson.” Interview by Alexsandra Mitchell. Live From the Reading Room, September 7, 2017. Audio, https://www.nypl.org/blog/2017/09/07/birthday-jean-blackwell-hutson.
Howard, Sharon. “Hutson, Jean Blackwell.” Oxford African American Studies Center, Oxford University Press, accessed May 24, 2018, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e0285?hi=0&highlight=1&from=quick&pos=1.
“Hutson, Jean Blackwell 1914–.” Contemporary Black Biography, Encyclopedia.com, accessed May 24, 2018, https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/historians-and-chronicles/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/jean-blackwell-hutson.
Hutson, Jean Blackwell. “Mrs. Jean Hutson: Are We Rewriting History?” Interview by Irving M. Levine. New York Tomorrow, December 24, 1968. Audio, http://www.wnyc.org/story/mrs-jean-hutson-are-we-rewriting-black-history/.
Smith, Dinitia. “Jean Hutson, Schomburg Chief, Dies at 83.” The New York Times February 7, 1998. https://www.nytimes.com/1998/02/07/arts/jean-hutson-schomburg-chief-dies-at-83.html.