Sunday, September 4, 2011


Jean F. Blackwell grew up in Baltimore and became one of the most influential African-American librarians in the United States.  Her career at NYPL encapsulated the problems African-Americans faced as the Library integrated its staff.

Jean Blackwell started college at the University of Michigan but quit when she was denied the right to live in an integrated dormitory.  She transferred to Barnard College and earned her BA in 1935.

Following Barnard she entered Columbia’s School of Library Service.  Upon her graduation in 1936, Blackwell applied for a job at NYPL, but she was told that NYPL did not need more Negro assistants.

The initial rejection of Blackwell’s application was the result of a de facto quota system.  Since 1920 the Library had been committed to having an integrated staff at the 135th Street Branch, which served Manhattan’s rapidly growing Black community.   NYPL’s well-intentioned integration policy, however, imposed a quota since the 135th Street Branch was the only branch that accepted new African-American librarians. 

Fortunately for Blackwell, the National Urban League intervened, and she was soon hired as a substitute at 135th Street.  Once hired, Ernestine Rose, her Branch Librarian, became her mentor, and with Rose’s encouragement Blackwell began to rise through NYPL’s ranks.

Even with Rose’s support, Blackwell continued to run into obstacles.  Generally a Branch Librarian could select her own staff members, and this was another factor hindering integration.  In 1938 Blackwell was transferred to the Harlem Branch, in an area experiencing an influx of African-Americans, without the approval of the white Branch Librarian.  Blackwell recalled that this librarian refused to speak to her directly due to this breach of NYPL protocol.    

In 1947 Blackwell was promoted to Branch Librarian at the Washington Heights Branch.  She only served as Branch Librarian a short time before being made Acting Curator of the Schomburg Collection, a special collection at the 135th Street Branch which documenting the African Diaspora.   She was eventually made full-time curator and served there until her retirement in 1980.

Despite her short tenure as Branch Librarian, Jean Blackwell Hutson’s major contribution to NYPL was building the Schomburg Collection into one of the worlds best repositories on the history and culture of people of African descent.  That collection is now the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. 

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