NYPL's Jean Blackwell Hutson: Building the Schomburg Center

By Tequila Davis, Library Manager, 115th Street
March 22, 2021

In honor of Women's History Month, the Library is taking a look back at some of the remarkable women who changed The New York Public Library—and the field of librarianship—forever with our new series, Foreword: Women Who Built NYPL. Each week this March, we will be sharing reflections from our current staff on how the impact of these trailblazing figures from the Library's 125-year history are still felt today. 

Black and white photo of Jean Blackwell Hutson and Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes and Jean Blackwell Hutson at the Schomburg Center, ca. 1954

Unidentified Photographer

Prints and Photographs Division, Schomburg Center for Black Culture, The New York Public Library,

Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

About Jean Blackwell Hutson

Jean Blackwell Hutson was chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture from 1948 to 1980. She began her NYPL career in 1936, serving as a librarian—and eventually branch head—at various locations, where she was focused on ensuring the communities she served had materials that spoke to them. In 1948, she was asked to lead the Schomburg Center. During her tenure, Hutson grew the Schomburg’s collection from 15,000 to 75,000 volumes, including the archive of her friend Langston Hughes, and successfully lobbied for money and support for the Center. The research and reference division now bears her name. 

Jean Blackwell Hutson’s Legacy

Reflection by Tequila Davis, Library Manager, Harry Belafonte–115th Street Library

Jean Blackwell Hutson is described as being educated and very influential and informed on African and African American culture. She was a very strong woman. She advocated for African and African American culture. I can see strength in her when she fought Enoch Pratt Library School in court when she was discriminated against and not accepted when she applied. Also, I saw strength in her when she created the Schomburg Corporation to ask for donations to redo a building that was falling down around her. Mrs. Hutson exuded power. She fought for what was right, for what was deserved, in the Harlem community.

I feel like her legacy is continued in us by making sure the collections, services and resources we provide are available to those who are underserved.  Also, by making sure they have the access they need. At my site, Harry Belafonte–115th Street Library, we had a job information series that used to be in-person, but we made sure that became virtual because it was so helpful. People were getting jobs because of my adult librarian, Jenny Chisnell. She helped them redo their resumes, practice interviews, and figure out what companies really are looking for. Our college and career programs, led by my young adult librarian, Clara Laitman, are amazing too. She is passionate about helping our teens get through this challenging time. Services like Shelf Help, which help patrons get access to titles/books that they may not have considered reading themselves or may not have been aware of. Even though the Library’s not available for browsing and in-person events, like how we used to be, we’re still making sure we’re serving the underserved. We’re doing what people like Jean did, making sure options are accessible to those who are not able to get it otherwise. Jean was the type that wanted to make sure people knew what was going on around them and had access to that.    

I began at NYPL by going to a job fair at the old Donnell Library and I met a librarian, Ms. Yolanda Bonitch (now retired) who told me, if you want to go far in this organization, you have to go to library school. I took that and I ran with it. I went to library school with our current Borough Director, Mrs. Yolanda Gleason, and admired her skills and admired her passion for librarianship. Then there was a colleague of mine, Danita Nichols, who supported me and helped me prior to the interview process at the job fair. It’s been a lot of women that have helped me get to where I am now in the organization, and I truly appreciate that.    

Jean has further encouraged me, as an African American woman, to know that the path that I am on is the one I should be on. I truly believe in helping others that are not able to help themselves. I describe our site as an informal education center—we’re here to help those who need to learn or acquire skills that will help them go forth in the world, in their respective communities and respective lives. Jean has encouraged me and reminded me that what I’m doing is what I’m supposed to be doing—and what I’m doing is what is right.  

This is part of the Foreword: Women Who Built NYPL series. Find out how the Library is celebrating Women's History Month with recommended reading, events and programs, and more.